Marked as the first significant scientific milestone achieved by the MeerKAT radio telescope, the telescope’s First Light image of the sky, released by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor on Friday, proved that it was “the best radio telescope of its kind in the southern hemisphere”.
Covering less than 0.01% of the entire celestial sphere, the MeerKAT First Light image showed more than 1 300 galaxies in the distant universe, compared with 70 known in this location prior to MeerKAT.
"South Africa has already demonstrated its excellent science and engineering skills by designing and building MeerKAT. This telescope, which is predominantly a locally designed and built instrument, shows the world that South Africa can compete in international research, engineering, technology and science. Government is proud of our scientists and engineers for pioneering a radio telescope that will lead to groundbreaking research,” Pandor said at the launch in the Northern Cape.
“Based on the results being shown today, we are confident that, after all 64 dishes are in place, MeerKAT will be the world's leading telescope of its kind until the advent of SKA," SKA South Africa chief technologist Professor Justin Jonas claimed.
MeerKAT, which was still under construction in the Karoo, would be integrated into the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
The 64 receptors would each comprise a 13.5-m-diametre dish antenna, cryogenic coolers, receivers, a digitiser and other electronics.
The commissioning, currently being carried out in phases to allow for verification of the system, the early resolution of any technical issues and initial science exploitation, were also on track.
Array Release 1 (AR1) provided 16 of the eventual 64 dishes that would be integrated into a working telescope array, while AR2 of 32 and AR3 of 64, were expected to be in place by late 2017.
SKA project director Dr Rob Adam added that the launch of MeerKAT AR1 and its first results were significant milestones for South Africa. “Through MeerKAT, South Africa is playing a key role in the design and development of technology for the SKA.
“The South African team of more than 200 young scientists, engineers and technicians, in collaboration with industry, and local and foreign universities and institutions, has developed the technologies and systems for MeerKAT,” he said.
These included telescope antennas and receivers, signal processing, timing, telescope management, computing and data storage systems, and algorithms for data processing, explained Adam.
Meanwhile, in May, more than 150 researchers and students, two-thirds from South Africa, met in Stellenbosch to discuss and update the MeerKAT science programme.
This consisted of already approved "large survey projects", plus "open time" available for new projects. An engineering test image, produced with only four dishes, was made available just before that meeting.
"The scientists gathered at the May meeting were impressed to see what four MeerKAT dishes could do," noted SKA South Africa chief scientist Dr Fernando Camilo.