MeerKAT joins as­tron­omy’s big league

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - SHEREE BEGA

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”.

sheree.bega@inl.co.za

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