“The development of radio astronomy calibration and imaging techniques has historically been punctuated by distinct generational shifts,” says Prof Smirnov. The discovery of the SelfCal algorithm in the 1980s ushered in the ‘second-generation calibration’ (2GC) era, and resulted in a rapid blossoming of software and methods. These were so successful and allowed so much new science to be done that the community’s focus shifted to the application of SelfCal, rather than development of new approaches. “Most radio astronomers spent the next two decades reaping the benefits of these applications, while only a small number of people worldwide kept specialising in the techniques themselves.”
But, the past ten years have seen a surge in the development of new radio telescopes, such as the SKA pathfinders, of which MeerKAT is a prime example. By virtue of their large scale and novel observational regimes, the capabilities of these instruments would be compromised by the old 2GC methods. With the SKA itself around the next corner, it has become increasingly clear that new methods need to be developed. This has fuelled demand for third-generation (3GC) techniques, and has provoked a very rapid development of the field.
These circumstances have created a situation in which a small number of specialists are trying to solve an overwhelming amount of interesting new problems. There is much new ground to explore, and not enough scientists to explore it. This provides an extremely fertile environment for young researchers and students, and offers an opportunity for Rhodes – and, more broadly, the South African radio astronomy community in general – to take the lead in the field.
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