Media release

As astronomers gather to discuss scientific potential of MeerKAT, the telescope being built in the Karoo produces its first remarkable image

24 May 2016

More than 100 researchers and students from South Africa and around the world are meeting this week to share plans to use the MeerKAT radio telescope. TheMeerKAT Science Workshop will be held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study facility on 25-27 May 2016.

As the conference takes place in Stellenbosch, construction of the telescope continues apace in the Karoo (IMAGE 1), while commissioning scientists and engineers at the SKA South Africa office in Cape Town run tests with the first elements of the dish array. This week, an observation using just 4 of the eventual 64 dishes has produced a remarkable view of the sky, revealing never before seen radio galaxies in the distant universe (IMAGES 2 and 3).

“This wonderful result has enormous significance,” said Prof Justin Jonas, Associate Director for Science and Engineering, SKA South Africa. “Just 10 years ago I would not have imagined that we would be hosting such a prestigious meeting in South Africa and building a world-leading radio telescope. This image and all that lies behind it adds to our confidence that this very complex project will be the success that we have been planning for over the past decade.”

“This image covers less than 0.01 percent of the entire celestial sphere”, explains Dr Fernando Camilo, SKA South Africa Chief Scientist. “Given that we detect more than 50 galaxies in such a small patch of sky, observed with only 4 dishes, imagine the discoveries that are going to be made surveying the entire South African sky with the full 64-dish MeerKAT!”

The scientific promise of MeerKAT is reflected in the worldwide interest in the MeerKAT Science Workshop. “This promise is now within reach,” according to Dr Rob Adam, SKA South Africa Project Director. “It is a testament to the dedicated work of hundreds of engineers, scientists, managers and other staff, as well as of the South African and international industrial partners, and the support of the government and people of South Africa for more than a decade.”

MeerKAT, a project of Square Kilometre Array South Africa (SKA SA), which is overseen by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), will be made up of 64 dishes spread over a diameter of 8 kilometres in the Northern Cape, 90 kilometres northwest of Carnarvon. When completed by late next year, it will be one of the world’s most powerful scientific instruments. Eventually MeerKAT will be integrated into the even more powerful SKA telescope.


More about SKA and MeerKAT
SKA (Square Kilometre Array) will be the world’s most powerful radio telescope – one hundred times more sensitive than any current radio telescope; it will revolutionise our understanding of the Universe. SKA will be built in two phases – SKA1 and SKA2 – starting in 2018. SKA1 will include two components – SKA1 MID (to be built in South Africa) and SKA1 LOW (to be built in Australia); they will observe the Universe at different radio frequencies.

The MeerKAT radio telescope, a project of SKA South Africa overseen by the Department of Science and Technology, is a precursor to the SKA telescope and will be integrated into the mid-frequency component of SKA Phase 1. When completed, MeerKAT will consist of 64 dishes. SKA1 MID will include an additional 133 dishes bringing the total number for SKA1 MID to 197 dishes.

Expected research to be conducted with MeerKAT
The MeerKAT science programme will consist of legacy-style, large survey projects, plus open time available for new proposals. Legacy-style science will include the LADUMA and Pulsar Timing programmes. LADUMA (Looking at the Distant Universe with the MeerKAT Array) is an ultra-deep survey of neutral hydrogen gas in the distant universe. One of the aims of the Pulsar Timing programme is to help detect gravitational waves from a collection of coalescing super-massive black holes at the centres of distant galaxies. Many more ideas to exploit the scientific potential of MeerKAT will be discussed at the MeerKAT Science Workshop.

Please note that these are not First Light Images of MeerKAT but rather Test Images.

The core of the MeerKAT radio telescope array under construction, showing 19 of the 13.5-metre diameter dishes on 20 April 2016.

Image from test observation done with 4 MeerKAT dishes on 14 May 2016. More than 50 radio sources (white dots) are visible in this 1 square degree panorama (corresponding to 5 times the area of the Moon). Unlike an ordinary picture of the sky that mainly shows stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy, these dots arise from galaxies in the distant universe emitting radio waves at a frequency of 1400 MHz (15 times the frequency of FM radio stations).

Image 2 overlaid with yellow ellipses indicating radio sources detected in a similar observation done with KAT-7 (a 7-dish precursor to MeerKAT, also located in the Karoo); and green ellipses showing radio sources detected in the Australian SUMMS survey of the Southern sky. Some of the yellow ellipses are resolved into two green counterparts, showing that the 4-dish test observation produces sharper images than possible with KAT-7. Some of the white dots do not have a green or yellow counterpart, indicating that this commissioning image obtained with 4 MeerKAT dishes has already detected previously unknown radio galaxies.


Lorenzo Raynard
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