Science begins with South Africa's super radio telescope

Federico Mansilla
Julio 18, 2018

"The centre of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena - but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes", Fernando Camilo, the chief scientist of SARAO, explains in a statement.

South Africa has officially switched to MeerKAT, which has been billed as the most sensitive radio telescope of its type on the planet.

Built at a cost of 4.4 billion rand, ($329.56 million) MeerKAT will be incorporated into the complex Square Kilometre Array (SKA) instrument, which when fully operational in the late 2020s would be the world's biggest and most powerful radio telescope.

While the MeerKAT is a local project, it forms part of a larger vision to grow radio astronomy on the continent and is meant to dovetail with the mammoth SKA which will consist of about 3,000 linked radio telescopes.

The end result of MeerKAT's observations is a panorama shot spanning an area of about 1,000 light-years by 500 light-years.

SKA South Africa facilitates human capital development programmes to 22 schools that are located in town that surround the SKA project, which reaches 5 400 learners.

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The center of our galaxy lies 25,000 light-years away from our pale blue dot, tucked behind the Sagittarius constellation and veiled in billowing storms of interstellar gas and dust. "Although it's early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be optimized, we made a decision to go for it - and were stunned by the results".

Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Northwestern University says that the MeerKAT image is so clear that it could actually crack the three-decade riddle of the filaments. The telescope sent back images of such astonishing clarity and detail that even the optimists were shocked.

The MeerKAT can process up to 275 gigabytes per second.

Unbelievably, this massive telescope system is one single facet of a much larger undertaking: the Square Kilometre Array, slated to be the largest radio telescope in the world.

"With this new instrument, South Africa stands poised to be at the forefront of astronomy and data science". (A width equal to the approximate height of your average brachiosaurus.) These dishes are spaced out along a grid and receive different radio signal wavelengths, which an overworked computer then translates into radio images of the sky.

Last month, scientists linked a powerful optical telescope, MeerLITCH, built 200km south of Carnarvon, with the MeerKAT to allow for simultaneous optic and radio study of cosmic events as they occur.

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