MeerKAT to answer big science questions

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The MeerKAT radio telescope, the precursor to the Square Kilometre Array, will come on line in a matter of months to answer big science questions.

Dr Lindsay Magnus, the Head of Operations at Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa, said this ahead of Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor’s visit to the SKA site near the small Karoo town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

Dr Magnus said scientists from around the world have lined up to conduct research using the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope once it is fully integrated in March 2018.

“By March next year, we should be able to make some observations as we expect all the 64 dishes of the MeerKAT to be integrated. In time, we will get more information on those new projects,” he said.

Scientists have requested time on the telescope to have it point in one direction for up to 5000 hours.  

Some of the questions scientists hope to answer include a better understanding of the Black Hole, Pulsars, Neutron Stars and whether there is life in the universe.

The construction of the 64-dish MeerKAT has already been completed.

According to Dr Lindsay out of the 64 dishes, 50-odd dishes have already been integrated ahead of March next year. The dish-shaped antennas, each 13.5 metres in diameter, currently stand about four stories high.

The MeerKAT is already regarded as the most powerful radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.

It will become part of Square Kilometre Array’s Phase 1. The MeerKAT will form 25% of the Phase 1 dish array in South Africa.

The SKA is a radio telescope being built in South Africa and Australia which will have a total collecting area of approximately one square kilometre. It will operate over a wide range of frequencies and its size will make it 50 times more sensitive, and up to 10 000 faster than the best radio telescopes of today.

It will be powerful enough to detect radio waves from objects millions or even billions of light years away from Earth. A light year is the distance light can travel in one year, at a velocity of 300 000 km/s.

The SKA will focus on addressing questions that can only be answered using a radio telescope.

Scientists will use the radio telescope, which is the talk of town in Carnarvon and around the world, to help humankind understand how the universe evolved, how stars and galaxies form and change, and what “dark matter” really is.

Dr Magnus said currently, only essential construction workers are on site in the Karoo, while the rest of the SKA team works from Cape Town. This is to ensure that there is as little interference on the site as possible as the antennae are sensitive to mobile network signals, which affect the accuracy of the telescope’s observations.

He said the SKA is in the process of developing signal detectors tailored for the radio telescope because current signal jammers are not suitable for the sensitive antennae as they transmit their own signal. –

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