South Africa celebrates completion of gigantic, super-sensitive telescope

MeerKAT has drawn astronomers, engineers and data scientists from around the world.

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This image, based on observations made with South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope, shows the clearest view yet of the central regions of our galaxy.Credit: South African Radio Astronomy Observatory

Scientists and politicians in South Africa are together celebrating the official opening of a gigantic telescope that is already transforming astronomical research in the nation.

A ceremony that was broadcast live on national television stations on 13 July from a remote site in the Northern Cape province marked the completion of the powerful MeerKAT radio telescope, which was designed in, and funded by, South Africa.

An array of 64 dishes, each 13.5 metres in diameter, MeerKAT is the most sensitive telescope of its kind in the world and will map the radio sky in unprecedented detail.

The 4.4-billion-rand (US$330-million) project will eventually form part of a future intercontinental facility called the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which, when complete, will be the world’s largest radio telescope.

“With this new instrument, South Africa stands poised to be at the forefront of astronomy and data science,” SKA Organisation director-general Phil Diamond said at the launch. “The anticipated success of the SKA relies heavily on MeerKAT.”

David Mabuza, the country’s deputy president, attended the ceremony, along with numerous members of the cabinet, including the current science minister and four previous science ministers, who all had a hand in driving the project.

“MeerKAT is an iconic instrument,” said Mabuza. “We take pride in the fact that a project of this magnitude was completed on time, within the projected budget.”

Milky Way imaged

Parts of MeerKAT have been collecting data since they were erected in 2016. At the ceremony, scientists unveiled an image made using all 64 dishes (see picture, above). It is the most detailed radio image yet of the centre of the Milky Way, which contains a supermassive black hole.

MeerKAT is expected to be completely science-ready in the next few months; two projects, one looking at fleeting astronomical events known as transients and another that will investigate star formation, are already under way. Transients include fast radio bursts, which can be as brief as a few seconds and are among the most perplexing phenomena in astronomy.

MeerKAT uses a technique called interferometry, in which many dishes or antennas together act as a single telescope. Each dish collects the relatively weak radio signals from space, which are then combined, filtered and turned into data that are useful to astronomers.

Astronomy ambitions

The project has spurred on the country’s astronomy ambitions, which take advantage of conditions in places such as the Northern Cape, a sparsely populated area selected for its reliably cloudless skies. Those ambitions — and the allure of the SKA — have already attracted astronomers, engineers and data scientists from all over the world. Many SKA- and astronomy-specific research chairs — university positions dedicated to research and postgraduate training — have been conferred on foreign scientists, or have attracted local scientists back from other countries.

“MeerKAT is what attracted me to South Africa,” says Fernando Camilo, chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cape Town, who moved from the United States to South Africa in 2016, to join the MeerKAT project.

In the early 2000s, before the country threw its hat into the ring to host the SKA and began a concerted effort to expand its astronomy-researcher base, there were about ten dedicated radio astronomers in South Africa, says Justin Jonas, chief technologist at the South Africa Radio Astronomy Observatory and an initial driver of the SKA project in South Africa. Many of the country’s universities now have strong radio-astronomy groups. “Back in the day, our astronomers went abroad to do astronomy, now we’re the attraction,” he says.

Scientists and officials expect that MeerKAT will continue to raise the profile of South African science. For now, scientists are itching to get their hands on the MeerKAT data. “The provisional data is better than we expected,” says Michael Kramer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, who is involved in a project looking for transients and pulsars using MeerKAT.

He says that some of his colleagues have moved to South Africa to be part of the project, and others visit regularly. “Having the best telescope of its kind will do that.”

MeerKAT will accommodate eight ‘large survey’ projects, some headed by South Africans and some by foreign scientists, each allocated more than 1,000 hours of observing time over 5 years. Half of these will investigate hydrogen abundance in a variety of environments, says Camilo. The element is the fuel of stars, among other things, and can be used to trace the Universe’s history. Most of the remaining observing time, about one-third, will be allocated to astronomers worldwide through an open call.

The 64 MeerKAT dishes will eventually be absorbed into the first phase of the SKA, which will consist of another 130 dishes in South Africa and up to 130,000 antennas in Australia. Construction is expected to begin in 2020.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05730-9

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 16 July 2018: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported that MeerKAT was already surveying hydrogen abundance and overstated the number of ‘large survey’ projects that would be investigating the element.

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