The first of 64 antennas that will make up South Africa’s new radio telescope – MeerKAT – has been officially launched by South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom.
The Minister also officially opened the specialised MeerKAT Karoo Array Processor Building – the cutting edge data centre for the MeerKAT telescope that has been built in an underground bunker at the Karoo observatory site.
Dignitaries from around the world, including the Director General of the SKA Organisation, representatives from SKA Organisation member countries and ministers from African SKA partner countries, convened at the Radio Astronomy Reserve in the Karoo, about 90 km from Carnarvon, for the event.
“The launch of the first MeerKAT antenna signifies South Africa’s ardent commitment to the MeerKAT project and the broader SKA project. It further typifies the excellent engineering and technical capabilities in South Africa that have enabled us to deliver a project of this magnitude within projected timeframes and budget allocations,” says Minister Hanekom.
He adds that the launch of the processor building and the associated design and development activities undertaken mark South Africa’s readiness to embark on a big data programme at national level.
Standing 19.5 m tall and weighing 42 tons, the new MeerKAT antenna towers above the antennas of the nearby KAT-7 instrument. KAT-7 was completed in 2010 as an engineering prototype for MeerKAT, and is now routinely used for scientific research. MeerKAT is one of the precursors to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, and will later be incorporated into the mid-frequency component of SKA Phase 1 when that instrument is being constructed. The SKA will be the world’s largest radio telescope, located in Australia and Africa, but shared by astronomers around the globe.
Because of its so-called “Offset Gregorian” design, each MeerKAT antenna has two reflectors – a main reflector with a 13.5 m projected diameter and a smaller sub-reflector with a diameter of 3.8 m. “With this design there are no struts in the way to block or scatter incoming electromagnetic signals,” MeerKAT project manager Willem Esterhuyse explains. “This means that the instrument will be more sensitive than a more conventional symmetric design, and will deliver excellent imaging quality.”