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MeerKAT to help us understand the universe better

Written by More Matshediso and Jauhara Khan
After a decade of design and construction of the MeerKAT radio telescope, South Africa is now able to observe the universe in a new way and in extraordinary detail.

The MeerKAT radio telescope, originally the Karoo Array Telescope, was today officially launched by Deputy President David Mabuza and Science and Technology Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane in the Karoo in Northern Cape.

It was originally projected that the project would cost about R3.2 billion to complete, and that was not exceeded.

According to Chief Scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) Fernando Camilo, MeerKAT radio telescope is a radio interferometer-- a device that separates a beam of light into two ray beams, usually by means of reflection, and that brings the rays together to produce interference, used to measure wavelength, index of refraction, and astronomical distances.

The 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope is a South African project, a precursor to the larger international Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Each dish is about 13.5 meters in diameter and they are located on baselines of up to eight kilometres. The dishes are of a highly efficient design with up to four cryogenic receiver systems operating in different bands of the radio spectrum.

The MeerKAT radio telescope is the largest radio telescope in in the southern hemisphere.

The launch marked the SKA Phase 1 in the form of the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope. The MeerKAT radio telescope has now begun science operations.

At the launch event, a panorama obtained with the new telescope was unveiled that reveals extraordinary detail in the region surrounding the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy.

Camilo said this is one of several exciting new views of the universe already observed by the telescope.

“We wanted to show the science capabilities of this new instrument,” he said.

According to Camilo, the centre of the Milky Way, 25 000 light-years away from earth and lying behind the constellation Sagittarius (the ‘Teapot’), is forever enshrouded by intervening clouds of gas and dust, making it invisible from earth using ordinary telescopes.

However, infrared, X-ray, and in particular, radio wavelengths penetrate the obscuring dust and open a window into this distinctive region with its unique four million solar mass black hole.

“Although it is early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be optimised, we decided to go for it and were stunned by the results,” he said.

The SKA project is an international effort to build the world's largest radio telescope, with a collecting area of approximately one square kilometre.

SKA coordinating consortium comprises Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Deputy President David Mabuza called the launch of the MeerKAT “a special day of pride” for the African continent.

“This day represents some of Africa’s milestones in the successful interweaving of science, technology and innovation into our solutions of dealing with our developmental challenges in our quest to catch up with the rest of the world and make our contribution to world civilisation,” he said.

He said the Department of Science and Technology had made an investment in research and development to realise this dream.

“To this effect, we will develop a public-funded science, technology and innovation plan of action over the next 12-18 months that will result in socio-economic impact. Through smart investments in research and development, the Department of Science and Technology is supporting South African industry to grow and create more jobs through building scientific, technological and knowledge-based capabilities.”

Minister Kubayi-Ngubane said that is was significant that the telescope was being launched during the centenary birthdays “of former President Nelson Mandela and struggle stalwart Albertina Sisulu, who had fought for South Africans to have the opportunity to wonder about the universe.

“Countries that have developed at a faster rate have always been countries with a strong innovation culture driven by investments in science and technology. Such investment is important in retaining the most talented researchers.”