New images of the galaxy as African star joins radio astronomy league

Deputy President David Mabuza says the launch of the MeerKAT – the world’s most sensitive telescope – will place South Africa on the cutting edge of scientific research.

Speaking to journalists shortly after unveiling the 64th dish of the MeerKAT, the Deputy President said the unveiling of the now completed “star of the Karoo” is very significant, as it will help not only South Africa but other countries conducting research to help them innovate, invent and tackle the challenges facing their respective regions.

The MeerKAT has, with its recent observation of the centre of the galaxy, joined the global league of astronomical research.

“This is a very significant project that sets the country on a path towards development.

“It is not South Africa alone that will benefit. All the countries that came today to contribute are going to benefit.

“In terms of science and research, South Africa will be on a good footing,” Mabuza said.

While the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) optical telescope is located in Sutherland, also in the Northern Cape, in order to obtain images through the area’s dark skies, the MeerKAT detects gravitational waves to get images even through matter and dust, and at any time of the day.

The MeerKAT is the precursor of the Square Kilometre Array which upon its completion, will consist of an array of antennas in South Africa and other member countries.

A largely South African project that was designed and built locally, the MeerKAT will be integrated into the first phase of the international SKA Phase One mid-frequency array.

The Deputy President said the completion of the MeerKAT is the first step in the right direction.

“Science and technology will always be on the cutting edge of our moving forward, so there can’t be any development, any innovation, [without] research.

“Everything starts from research, then you innovate and move forward as a country. This is a good platform to enable us to study and learn of lot of things and in the process, we can invent new technologies that can be used by generations to come,” he said.

Speaking later at the official launch event, Mabuza said the launch of the MeerKAT is a source of pride for the continent. He commended the SKA project office for ensuring that the project was completed within the projected budget of R3.2 billion.

Local scientists have already described the telescope near Carnarvon in the Karoo as the most sensitive and possibly – in terms of its capabilities – the best in the world.

MeerKAT shows off spectacular, clearer images of the galaxy

Dr Fernando Camilo, a chief scientist at SKA South Africa, said the distribution of the array of 64 antennas – with a diameter of 13.5 metres and spreading out eight kilometres from each other – makes the MeerKAT well suited to a variety of pulsar and neutral hydrogen studies.

In his presentation to the Deputy President, Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor, Ministers from SKA member countries and other VIP guests, Camilo revealed images of the centre of the galaxy which are bigger and better, with clear patterns of the milky way when compared to images from the same piece of sky from the eye of an optical telescope.

The images were obtained in May ahead of today’s official opening.

The first observation, known as the “first light”, was made in 2016 using 16 antennas of the MeerKAT.

“Several of the selected large survey projects, which will use two thirds of the available observing time within five years, will address key questions related to the galaxy formation and evolution.

“For instance, the unique combination of column density sensitivity and angular resolution will make MeerKAT a powerful probe for studying accretion onto galaxies in the nearby Universe,” he said.

The projects, Camilo said, will investigate the range of conditions from star-forming disks to low-density gas in dark matter haloes in isolated galaxies and will examine how galaxies interact within rich clusters, while seeking to detect the cosmic web.

He also said that while the pride of the Karoo was optimized for particular applications, the MeerKAT is an extremely sensitive general-purpose radio telescope.

Kubayi-Ngubane said radio telescope is a demonstration of the effectiveness of the partnership with SKA member countries like Ghana and Mauritius, among others.

“This project is a clear demonstration to the world that nothing is impossible,” she said.

The Minister said the launch of the radio telescope is a fitting tribute to the centenary commemorations of former President Nelson Mandela – whose 100th birthday will be celebrated next week – and struggle icon mama Albertina Sisulu.