After a decade of design and construction, South Africa’s 64-array MeerKAT radio telescope was recently inaugurated at the SKA Losberg site in the Karoo.
The SKA project was an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with a square kilometre (one million square metres) of collecting area. The completed project was launched last week Friday. South Africa is now home to the largest radio telescope in the world and it is already capturing incredible things.
“Deploying thousands of radio telescopes, in three unique configurations, it will enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and survey the entire sky thousands of times faster than any system currently in existence.”
The area, located in the Karoo, consists of 64 dishes. They were able to capture the clearest look at the Milky Way to date.
“We wanted to show the science capabilities of this new instrument”, says Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which built and operates MeerKAT in the semi-arid Karoo region of the Northern Cape.
“The centre of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena – but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes”, according to Camilo. The centre of the Milky Way, 25,000 light-years away from Earth and lying behind the constellation Sagittarius (the “Teapot”), is forever enshrouded by intervening clouds of gas and dust, making it invisible from Earth using ordinary telescopes. However, infrared, X-ray, and in particular, radio wavelengths penetrate the obscuring dust and open a window into this distinctive region with its unique 4 million solar mass black hole.
“Although it’s early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be optimised, we decided to go for it – and were stunned by the results.”
“This image is remarkable”, says Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, one of the world’s leading experts on the mysterious filamentary structures present near the central black hole but nowhere else in the Milky Way. These long and narrow magnetised filaments were discovered in the 1980s using the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico, but their origin has remained a mystery.
“The MeerKAT image has such clarity”, continues Yusef-Zadeh, “it shows so many features never before seen, including compact sources associated with some of the filaments, that it could provide the key to cracking the code and solve this three-decade riddle”.
Yusef-Zadeh adds that “MeerKAT now provides an unsurpassed view of this unique region of our galaxy. It’s an exceptional achievement, congratulations to our South African colleagues. They’ve built an instrument that will be the envy of astronomers everywhere and will be in great demand for years to come”.
According to the SKA South Africa website, 1000s of astrinomers and enginners have submitted proposals to work in South Africa at the MeerKAT site. This is a promising future for Science in South Africa too!
Watch the timelapse below and of you would like to learn more, check out the website here.