MeerKAT – the best radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere

July 19th, 2016, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Uncategorised articles

 

This view, covering about 1% of the full MeerKAT First Light image, shows a "Fanaroff-Riley Class 2" (FR2) object: a massive black hole in the distant universe (matter falling into it produces the bright dot at the centre) launching jets of powerful electrons moving at close to the speed of light that emit radio waves detected with MeerKAT's sharp view of the radio sky (thin lines connecting the central dot to the brighter lobes of radio emission). (Picture credit SKA South Africa)

This view, covering about 1% of the full MeerKAT First Light image, shows a “Fanaroff-Riley Class 2” (FR2) object: a massive black hole in the distant universe (matter falling into it produces the bright dot at the centre) launching jets of powerful electrons moving at close to the speed of light that emit radio waves detected with MeerKAT’s sharp view of the radio sky (thin lines connecting the central dot to the brighter lobes of radio emission). (Picture credit SKA South Africa)

The MeerKAT First Light image of the sky, released by Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, shows unambiguously that MeerKAT is  the best radio telescope of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Array Release 1 consists of 16 of an eventual 64 dishes. It is the first significant scientific milestone achieved by MeerKAT In a small patch of sky covering less than 0,01% of the entire celestial sphere, the MeerKAT First Light image shows more than 1300 galaxies in the distant universe, compared to 70 known in this location prior to MeerKAT.

“Based on the first output we are confident that when all 64 dishes are in place, MeerKAT will be the world’s leading telescope of its kind only to be surpassed by the SKA”, said Prof. Justin Jonas, chief technologist, SKA South Africa.

When completed MeerKAT will consist of 64 dishes each 13,5 m in diameter, cryogenic coolers, receivers, digitisers, and other electronics. The commissioning of MeerKAT is planned in phases to allow for verification of the system, early resolution of any technical issues and initial science exploitation. Early science can be done with parts of the array as they are commissioned, even as construction continues. AR1 consists of 16 dishes, AR2 of 32 and AR3 of 64 which is expected to be in place by late 2017.

According to Dr. Rob Adam, project director of SKA South Africa, the launch of MeerKAT AR1 and its first results are significant milestones for South Africa. Through MeerKAT, South Africa is playing a key role in the design and development of technology for the SKA. The South African team of more than 200 young scientists, engineers and technicians, in collaboration with industry, local and foreign universities and institutions, has developed the technologies and systems for MeerKAT. These include cutting edge telescope antennas and receivers, signal processing, timing, telescope management, computing and data storage systems, and algorithms for data processing. In May 2016, more than 150 researchers and students, two-thirds from South Africa, met in Stellenbosch to discuss and update the MeerKAT science programme. This will consist of already approved “large survey projects”, plus “open time” for new projects.

Minister Pandor said that South Africa had already demonstrated its excellent science and engineering skills by designing and building MeerKAT. “This telescope shows the world that South Africa can compete in international research, engineering, technology and science.”

The site chosen near Carnarvon in the Karoo for the location of the MeerKAT and SKA telescopes provides unique opportunities for other radio astronomy installations, mainly because of minimal radio frequency interference, but also because of the extensive infrastructure developments taking place on the site.

HERA Project

Artist impression of HERA. Picture credit: University of California at Berkeley

Artist’s impression of HERA. Picture credit: University of California at Berkeley.

Attracted by these advantages, the University of California at Berkeley, the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory, several other US universities, and the University of Cambridge are working with SKA South Africa to invest US$20-million in establishing a new low-frequency radio telescope on the SKA site.  This telescope, Hydrogen Epoch of Re-ionisation Array (HERA), aims to answer the primary questions: what objects first lit up the Universe and re-ionised the neutral intergalactic medium (IGM)? Over what redshift range did this occur? How did the process proceed, leading to the large scale galaxy structure seen today?

In a phased build-up HERA will ultimately consist of 352 14 m antennas. Construction started at the end of 2015 with initial commissioning observations using 19 elements.

 

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