New Karoo telescope to give astronomers an extra view

Friday, May 25, 2018

Science and Technology Director General Dr Phil Mjwara says the MeerLICHT, the newly launched optical telescope, will help astronomers make optical multiband observations that were observed by a radio telescope in the night time. 

Mjwara on Friday unveiled the telescope at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) near the small Karoo town of Sutherland in the Northern Cape. 

The multimillion rand MeerLICHT optical telescope will be linked to the 64-dish MeerKAT in Carnavon, which is 245 kilometers away, and will observe the same skies to either discover or further confirm radio waves made by the MeerKAT. 

This means that with the MeerLICHT – which means “more light” in Dutch - making optical observations and with the MeerKAT making radio findings, the two telescopes will, together and at the same time, make observations on both sides of the spectrum. 

“We didn’t know when we made this decision that we would invest in different types of instruments looking at the different sides of the spectrum that we would end up with an instrument like the MeerLICHT,” said Mjwara.

The MeerLICHT telescope project is a partnership between the Radboud University Nijimegen, the University of Cape Town, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, the SAAO, the University of Oxford, the University of Manchester and the University of Amsterdam. 

The partnership is in association with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), the European Research Council and the Netherlands Research School for Astronomy. 

“For us as the Department of Science and Technology, the vision of a multi-wave astronomy is being achieved… We have always seen astronomy as something that allows South Africa to bring in global investments, different partners and also the prestige of South Africans being involved in these large collaborative projects,” Mjwara said. 

Rob Fender, a Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University, said the link between the two telescopes will enhance their work in a field he loves – the explosion of the stars. 

“It is very exciting to have an optical and a radio telescope together, so before we were involved in MeerLICHT, we were already… proposing to do a project with the MeerKAT radio telescope, which is in commissioning phase and will soon begin to do its work. 

“It is very interesting with the type of work I do, which is in exploding stars and events – where metaphors stand between black holes and neutron stars. 

“It is very interesting to have the optical that the MeerLICHT will take and the radio – which the MeeLICHT will take – at the same time and the reason is when you see one of these explosive or high energy events, the matter is very close to the event, it is very hot and it glows and it produces optical images,” he said.   

Telescope’s zoom is the largest in the world 

While some smart phone devices have a camera quality of up to 12 megapixels, at 110 million pixels or 110 megapixels, the fully robotic 0.65-m optical telescope will give astronomers a deeper view of the Karoo’s dark skies.

It achieves this amazing combination by coupling a 65cm diameter main mirror with the single 110 megapixel detector, which is a full 10cm x 10cm in size. 

The camera uses the largest single detector used in optical astronomy anywhere in the world. 

The MeerLICHT telescope was purpose-built to combine excellent resolution with a wide field of view. 

It sees more than 13x the full moon while being able to see objects one million times fainter than is possible with the naked eye. 

The telescope was designed and built in the Netherlands, and then shipped to South Africa. 

Professor Paul Groot, the head of astronomy at the University of Radboud and a co-principal investigator for the project, said work on the telescope started six years ago. 

“We started work on the technical definition of this telescope back in 2012, and it is fantastic to see what amazing views it produces,” he said. 

Professor Patrick Woudt, the project’s co-principal investigator from the University of Cape Town, said among the chief scientific goals of MeerLICHT is the study of stellar explosions, which need to be investigated intensely before they fade away again. 

“The study of exploding stars across the Universe will gain a whole new dimension,” he said. –