A radio telescope dish of the KAT-7 Array (Reuters/Mike Hutchings)
A radio telescope dish of the KAT-7 Array (Reuters/Mike Hutchings)

On 13 July, the 64-dish huge MeerKAT radio telescope inaugurated in the remote South African town of Carnarvon to unleash cosmic conundrums from dark energy to finding extraterrestrial life.

This Radio Telescope is the largest and most sensitive in the southern hemisphere until the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is completed. MeerKAT will be incorporated into the complex Square Kilometre Array (SKA) instrument, which when fully operational in the late 2020s.

Built at a cost of 4.4 billion rand (23 billion INR). 3,000 dishes co-hosted in Africa and Australia will be able to scan the sky 10,000 times faster(50 times) the sensitivity of any other telescope and produce high quality images than resolution quality of the Hubble Space telescope, scientists said of SKA.

South African Radio Astronomy Observatory has built and operates it.

Cheif sceintist at South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, Fernando Camilo said “MeerKAT will address some of the key science questions in modern astrophysics – how did galaxies form, how are they evolving, how did we come to be here, and for those purposes MeerKAT is the best in the world,”

MeerKATCamilo released new images taken by MeerKAT of the region surrounding the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, some 25,000 light years away.

“We didn’t expect to use our telescope so early in the game, it’s not even optimized, but to turn it to the centre of the galaxy and obtain these stunning images, the best in the world, tells you you’ve done something right, better than right,” he told Reuters.

MeerKAT is next to KAT 7(Karoo Array Telescope), built in the vast semi-desert Karoo region north of Cape Town to demonstrate South Africa’s ability to host the SKA. In Afrikaans meer-more, as in “more KAT”, but it also refers to the small mammal native to the Karoo and famed for standing on its hind legs to view the world.

MeerKAT is also creating space in big data and high-performance computing with likes of IBM aid in develop systems able to handle the dizzying amount of data fed from each individual antenna to supercomputers buried deep underground to limit radio interference.

Each sensitive dish looked as high as three storey building, rotating on a fixed pedestal as it scans the sky. Remoteness is chosen, with hills providing an extra shield against radio interference, the project site is the main African base for hundreds of antennae that will be placed as far as Kenya and Ghana.

“The first phase of SKA 1 in South Africa is to add 133 antennas to that (of MeerKAT),” said Rob Adam, an SKA international board member.

Expected to start next year, with the first prototype dish built in China already on site about 450 kilometers north of Cape Town in the Northern Cape province. MeerKAT will operate independently before being incorporated into SKA 1 sometime around 2023, said Adam.



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