MeerKAT joins astronomy’s big league
A WINDOW to the sheer beauty of the universe – that’s how star-gazer Takalani Nemaungani describes a major scientific announcement being made today on how South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope has revealed more than 1 300 galaxies.
Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor will release MeerKAT’s First Light Image of the sky from the telescope site in the Northern Cape today.
Its groundbreaking, “exceptionally beautiful images” demonstrate that MeerKAT “joins the ranks of the world’s great scientific instruments”.
It shows how, in a small patch of sky covering less than 0.01 percent of the entire celestial sphere, more than 1 300 galaxies are shown in the distant universe, compared to 70 known in this location before MeerKAT.
This proves “unambiguously that MeerKat is already the best radio telescope of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere”, said the department.
Array Release 1, which is being celebrated today, provides 16 of an eventual 64 dishes integrated into a working telescope array. The department said it’s the first significant scientific milestone achieved by MeerKAT, the radio telescope under construction in the Karoo, which will eventually be integrated into the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international project to construct the world’s largest radio telescope.
“It shows just how big the universe is,” enthuses Nemaungani, the acting chief-director for astron- omy in the Science and Technology Department. “It’s mind-boggling and heralds a new era of scientific excellence in this part of the world.
“Man’s curiosity with the universe started a long time ago with our ancestors looking into the skies. But it also shows that discoveries of this kind of scale can be done from South Africa. We don’t always have to hear them from Nasa. I think, for the public, it should give them confidence that maths and science has a great future.”
Dr Fernando Camilo, chief scientist at SKA South Africa, said in a statement that scientists gathered at a May meeting were impressed to see what four MeerKAT dishes could do.
“They will be astonished at today’s exceptionally beautiful images, which demonstrate that MeerKAT has joined the big leagues of world radio astronomy.
“The telescope is predominantly a locally designed and built instrument. It shows that South African engineers, scientists and astronomers are indeed very capable of demonstrating our expertise in this area of radio astronomy.”
Nemaungani said: “It’s now paying us back with great scientific results and discoveries, but of course it goes beyond that. We’ve been able to grow the astronomy community almost three times in the past 15 to 20 years, and this is very promising.”
Professor Justin Jonas, chief technologist of SKA South Africa, says after all the 64 dishes are in place, MeerKAT “will be the world’s leading telescope of its kind until the advent of SKA”.