Tag: MeerKAT

Baby MeerKAT exceeds expectations

The first image from South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope shows that the telescope “will be a remarkable discovery machine”, MeerKAT chief scientist Dr Fernando Camilo said on Saturday.

“The images tell us all that MeerKAT is the best telescope of its kind in the southern hemisphere, with only 16 dishes,” he told an assembled audience of ministers, deputy ministers and visitors to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) site in the Northern Cape.

On Saturday, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor inaugurated the first 16 dishes of the MeerKAT telescope – and unveiled its first image. By the end of next year, the MeerKAT telescope, which is South African designed and built, will comprise 64 dishes.

These giant two-storey dishes rise up out of the centre of the MeerKAT core area, standing incongruously against a backdrop of ocre sand and scrubland. Others wait to be assembled, their white metal bowls ready to be hoisted onto waiting pedestals.

“When the full 64-dish MeerKAT is available, it will be the best telescope of its kind in the world,” said Camilo, formerly of Columbia Univeristy who took up the post in April.

“It is very, very difficult to get to this stage [as there is usually a process of trouble-shooting before a telescope can produce a high-quality image]. It tells us and the world that we have a working telescope in the Karoo,” he said.

Although the R3-billion MeerKAT is South Africa-owned and funded, it will be incorporated into the SKA, which will be the largest telescope in the world. The SKA will be hosted by Australia and South Africa, with satellite sites in eight African partner countries. It will seek to answer some of humanity’s most enigmatic questions: are we alone in the universe, what is dark matter, how do galaxies evolve, what happened after the Big Bang?

From 2018, another 133 dishes will be added to MeerKAT to form part of the phase one of the SKA, which has been capped at EUR650-million. In Australia, about 130 dipole antennas, which look like six-foot-tall Christmas trees made out of thick wire, will be constructed as part of this phase.

South Africa decided to build MeerKAT, even before it was announced in 2012 that the SKA would be split between the two countries. Part of the idea at the time was to showcase South Africa’s scientific and engineering capabilities and prove that the country could in fact build and host a radio telescope. The other part was to ensure that it would have a legacy project in case the country lost the hosting bid.

“This is not just an unveiling,” Pandor said at the MeerKAT-16 inauguration. “We want to show the world the kind of research that the MeerKAT-16 makes possible…. We were only meant to reach this [quality of image] at 32 [dishes], not 16.”

It is difficult and expensive to engineer a radio telescope with only one big dish. This is why the MeerKAT – and ultimately the SKA – is an interferometer, which uses many smaller dishes to act as one giant telescope. What this means practically is that an interferometer can be brought online in phases, and the radio telescope can undertake science even though all of its phases are not operational.

Prof Justin Jonas, SKA South Africa chief technologist, said he was “amazed” at the quality of the image, although “there are no accidents here. It’s been a coherent effort from the whole team and the National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Technology…. We hired the right people, had the right processes in place.”

“Personally, I’m very, very excited,” Jonas, who attended the first international SKA meeting as South Africa’s ambassador, said. “I’ve been wanting to build a radio telescope since I was a kid, and now we have. How many people get to do that? And it’s working!”

The released image is a picture of about 1300 radio galaxies, of which only 70 had been imaged before, Jonas said.

Celestial objects, like stars and galaxies, emit radio waves, which cannot be seen with the naked eye. Radio telescopes receive these relatively weak signals from the universe and turn them into maps and images of the universe. The radio spectrum is substantially broader than that of visible light, which means that scientists can “see” more with radio telescopes.

The “first light” image was taken in the L-band, which is a portion of the radio spectrum. This band is of interest globally because it contains information about how the universe and how galaxies evolve, among other things. MeerKAT is expected to be twice as sensitive in this band as was originally anticipated. This means that an experiment in this band could take a quarter of the time it was originally allocated.

However, Pandor said that there was more to South Africa’s astronomy investment than pure science: “Big science brings opportunity to South Africa and the African continent. The SKA brings opportunities to this area, opportunities they hadn’t hoped for.”

It was “not always easy to convince governments to support long-term projects and initiatives, especially in science … [where] there are often nuanced impacts that are not immediately visible”, she said, encouraging dignitaries including Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and 11 deputy ministers from a number of departments, to become “ambassadors for science and the SKA”.

“Science and astronomy science can change lives, change communities, build human capital…. Through science, in South Africa and Africa, we are able to advance development.”

Wild was a guest of the Department of Science and Technology and SKA South Africa

  • This article was first published by Independent Newspapers.

MeerKAT to get an optical companion

It can happen in the blink of an eye: millions of light years away a star collapses in on itself. From Earth, that cataclysmic event is only a sudden brightening of a point in the night sky, and on the ground, astronomers scramble to investigate it.

A new telescope, to be installed at South Africa’s Sutherland astronomy site in the next year, will catch these faint flickerings, among others, and help us understand more about what is happening in the universe.

But what makes it different from other optical telescopes observing these transient astronomical phenomena in Sutherland is that the MeerLicht (“more light” in Dutch) telescope will be linked directly to South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope, more than 200km away.

“This is a novel way of doing things – creating a real-time link with optical and radio telescopes,” says Patrick Woudt, head of astronomy at the University of Cape Town and South Africa’s principal investigator on the MeerLicht project.


For more, you can read the rest of the story here.

Belt-tightening hits SA’s SKA budget

South Africa’s radio astronomy ambitions are feeling the pinch of austerity as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s 2016 budget cuts its Square Kilometre Array (SKA) allocation by R250-million. (*The department later noted that this was an error in the budget. The budget decreased by R89-million.)

The SKA will be the largest radio telescope in the world, and will be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia. It will comprise thousands of antennae in Australia and on the African continent. South Africa’s own 64-dish MeerKAT telescope, which will form part of the SKA, is expected to be fully operational at the beginning of next year.

However, the budget overview includes a R250-million reduction over three years, with -R80-million in 2016-17, -R50-million in 2017-18, and -R120-million in 2018-19. (*The department later noted that this was an error in the budget.)

This is the first time since South Africa was chosen as a co-host of the giant telescope that the budget allocation has decreased. In last year’s estimates of national expenditure, the project, which is one of the department of science and technology’s flagship projects, was allocated R2.1-billion.

SKA South Africa director Rob Adam said that he was not able to comment as the project had not yet received its allocation.

Department of science and technology director-general Phil Mjwara told Wild on Science that the country was committed to finishing the MeerKAT and SKA telescopes. “Our understand is that … part of the reason is cash flow. Sometimes, because of delays infrastructure, you have a lot of cash.”

However, this forms part of a larger move towards austerity. The department of science and technology’s budget, which has been steadily increasing since its formation in 2002, is now stagnating. Compared to the 2015 national budget, both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 allocations have been decreased by about R100-million. In terms of the 2016 budget, the department has been allocated R7.43-billion for 2016-17, R7.56-billion for 2017-18 and R7.76-billion for 2018-19.

“The amounts are reasonable,” said Mjwara. “We’re happy that at least the budget is still around R7.5-billion. There are [departments] that have lost several billion in their budget. In the entire context [of South Africa’s economic situation], we’re also contributing to belt tightening.

“We hope that, as the economic situation becomes better, it will increase. That applies to the SKA too,” he said.


* Response to budget queries from the department’s head of SKA and AVN (African VLBI Network) Takalani Nemaungani: “The correct figure for the SKA budget cut is R89m over the current MTEF period – this was communicated officially by Treasury to our Director General earlier this year.  The R250m figure can be assumed to be an error and the DST Finance has been informed on this to see how they will handle this matter with Treasury.”

SKARAB: SA’s solution to high-performance computing

Rows of racks hum in an underground bunker, hidden from the scorching sun and the sensitive radio antennas that dot the desert landscape in the Northern Cape.

All processing capacity for South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA) precursor telescope, MeerKAT, has to be buried so that it will not interfere the dishes which will detect the relatively weak radio signals from space.

The 64-dish MeerKAT will produce about 2.5Tb/s, all of which will have to be correlated and processed before it is sent to Cape Town, via optical fibre, for analysis.

Enter SKARAB, the latest incarnation of technology that will achieve this. SKARAB, which stands for SKA Reconfigurable Application Board, is based on a field-programmable gate array (FPGA). It was designed and is manufactured by South African company Peralex.

For more, find the article — originally published in Mail & Guardian — here.

SKA Organisation gives smaller design the green light

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) phase one will now move into its final pre-construction phase, smaller than initially anticipated but within the EUR650-million budget cap. Construction will begin in 2018.

The giant telescope, which will comprise thousands of antennae in Australia and Africa, with the core in South Africa, will be the largest scientific experiment in the world and will attempt to answer some of humanity’s most enigmatic questions, such as: Is there other life in the universe, how do galaxies form and what is dark matter?

However, it was initially envisioned that the telescope would be on one continent and, following the site decision in May 2012 when it was decided that the telescope would be split between South Africa and Australia, scientists and engineers have been working on a design that would accommodate telescopes in both countries, while still getting the maximum science out of the instrument.

As part of the bid to host the giant telescope, Australia and South Africa developed precursor telescopes, named Askap (Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder) and MeerKAT respectively. The second dish of the 64-dish MeerKAT was erected in February and the entire telescope is expected to come online in 2017.

For more, find the article — originally published in Mail & Guardian — here.



All systems so for SKA

African ministers of science and technology will return home this week with a plan to ready their countries for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and a network of radio telescopes on the continent.

The giant telescope, which will comprise thousands of antennae in Australia and Africa with the core in South Africa, will be the largest scientific experiment in the world and will attempt to answer some of humanity’s most enigmatic questions, such as: Is there other life in the universe? How do galaxies form? And what is dark matter?

South Africa will host the core of the world’s largest radio telescope in collaboration with Australia, and eight African partner countries – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia – will also host satellite stations.

Ministers and representatives of the partner countries met SKA South Africa and Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor in Pretoria on Wednesday and signed a draft memorandum of understanding outlining the “readiness strategy” and “plan of action” for hosting the SKA in their countries.

For more, find the article — originally published in Mail & Guardian — here.