New ra­dio tele­scope to probe dark en­ergy and ra­dio flashes

The Mercury - - TERTIARY TIMES - Ba­vani Naidoo

SOUTH Africa has launched a mul­ti­mil­lion rand global pro­ject in ra­dio astron­omy that will con­duct ground­break­ing sci­ence in astrophysi­cs while build­ing on ex­ist­ing ex­cel­lence in the coun­try.

To be lo­cated at the Square Kilo­me­tre Ar­ray (SKA) South Africa site in the Ka­roo, the Hy­dro­gen In­ten­sity and Real Time Anal­y­sis eX­per­i­ment (HIRAX) tele­scope will have im­por­tant syn­er­gies with the 64-dish MeerKAT; the coun­try’s pre­cur­sor to the SKA.

Jointly funded by the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Natal and the Depart­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy (DST) through the Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion (NRF), HIRAX will be a com­pact ra­dio tele­scope ar­ray of 1 024 six-me­tre dishes that will map about a third of the sky dur­ing its four years of ob­ser­va­tion.

Speak­ing at the launch in Dur­ban last week, Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Min­is­ter, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, said that HIRAX will en­hance the na­tional sys­tem of in­no­va­tion by build­ing re­search and in­no­va­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties in the coun­try.

‘The pro­ject will help South Africa de­velop in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions, par­tic­u­larly in in­stru­men­ta­tion and big data pro­cess­ing, di­rectly im­pact­ing other eco­nomic sec­tors through tech­nol­ogy trans­fer,’ she said.

Kubayi-Ngubane also wel­comed the pro­ject’s con­tri­bu­tion to hu­man cap­i­tal devel­op­ment, say­ing that train­ing PhD stu­dents would con­tribute to the achieve­ment of the tar­get of 100 PhDs per mil­lion of pop­u­la­tion by 2030, and in­spire the next gen­er­a­tion of learn­ers to en­ter the ex­cit­ing fields of sci­ence and engi­neer­ing.

The ex­per­i­ment will be man­aged by UKZN and is a re­sult of a large global col­lab­o­ra­tion with at least eight South African in­sti­tu­tions and another dozen in­ter­na­tion­ally. The re­searchers will un­der­take a tech­ni­cal pro­gramme that in­volves build­ing the in­stru­ment; car­ry­ing out sci­ence ob­ser­va­tions and analysing the raw data.

UKZN Vice-Chan­cel­lor and Prin­ci­pal, Dr Al­bert van Jaarsveld, said, ‘The Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Natal is very proud of its HIRAX team. This team has made a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact at a na­tional and in­ter­na­tional level in terms of the im­por­tance and sig­nif­i­cance of the HIRAX tele­scope pro­ject and its syn­er­gies with the SKA ini­tia­tive. This ra­dio-astron­omy tele­scope, to be erected on the ra­dio-quiet SKA site, aims to de­scribe the ef­fects of dark en­ergy on the dis­tri­bu­tion of galax­ies. The pro­ject is led from UKZN by a dy­namic young team of Astronomer­s that are break­ing new ground and lever­ag­ing the SKA in­vest­ment to grow a new gen­er­a­tion of young astronomer­s in KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa.’

HIRAX will be able to de­ter­mine the char­ac­ter­is­tics of dark en­ergy dur­ing a crit­i­cal pe­riod in our uni­verse, be­tween 7 – 11 bil­lion years ago when dark en­ergy be­came the dom­i­nant com­po­nent in the uni­verse caus­ing it to ex­pand at an ac­cel­er­ated rate.

The main HIRAX ar­ray, com­bined with small ar­rays in part­ner­ing African coun­tries, will be able to lo­calise mysterious ra­dio flashes called Fast Ra­dio Bursts (FRB) within their host galax­ies, a feat never achieved be­fore. This will be a vi­tal first step in de­ter­min­ing the cause of these bursts.

HIRAX Prin­ci­pal In­ves­ti­ga­tor, Pro­fes­sor Kav­i­lan Mood­ley, who is based at UKZN, said, ‘The HIRAX pro­ject is ex­cit­ing be­cause we are work­ing with a dy­namic group of stu­dents and sci­en­tists that work on all as­pects of the pro­ject, from build­ing the tele­scope and analysing the data to sci­en­tific in­ter­pre­ta­tion. We are aim­ing to use our com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage of be­ing on the ex­cel­lent SKA SA Ka­roo site to have an im­pact on the study of dark en­ergy and fast ra­dio bursts’.

The pro­ject will work with in­dus­try to de­velop new tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion such as tele­scope hard­ware and big data anal­y­sis tools.

Of­fi­cial launch of the Hirax tele­scope pro­ject by the Hon­ourable Min­is­ter of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, Mmamoloko Kubay­iNgubane. She is flanked by UKZN’s Vice Chan­cel­lor, Dr Al­bert van Jaarsveld and Prin­ci­pal In­ves­ti­ga­tor Dr Kav­i­lan Mood­ley

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