South Africa has consolidated its radio astronomy facilities into a single institution, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (Sarao). This happened at the end of last month, when Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor announced that the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) had been deprived of its status as a national research facility, under the National Research Foundation (NRF), while, at the same time, the new Sarao had been declared a national research facility in its place.
“Sarao will operate as a hub for radio astronomy, reinforcing South Africa’s position as a key player in this field,” affirmed NRF CEO Dr Molapo Qhobela. “In addition, this will allow for the skills that already exist within the radio astronomy projects such as MeerKAT and AVN (African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network) to be deployed as required, making the system more resource efficient.”
The new observatory will incorporate HartRAO and all the activities and instruments of the Square Kilometre Array South Africa (SKA SA). These include human capital development and commercialisation programmes, the MeerKAT radio telescope array and the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7). Sarao will be responsible for carrying out the country’s radio astronomy construction and research programme.
It was the need to better coordinate South Africa’s ambitious and expanding radio astronomy programme that led to the creation of Sarao. Apart from the instruments at HartRAO itself, the MeerKAT programme, KAT-7 and the AVN project, there is the fact that the country will co-host (with Australia) the international SKA radio telescope.
“HartRAO, which was originally established as Nasa’s (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s) Depp Space Station 51, will continue its current operations both in terms of activities such as space geodesy and Very Long Baseline Interferometry, as well as a training site for our African partners in radio astronomy,” he said. “We look forward to the successful realisation of this new national research facility.”
HartRAO is equipped with its original, 26 m diameter, dish, which is its main instrument, as well as the much newer 15 m diameter dish (which was originally the XDM prototype dish for the KAT-7 programme, but was subsequently converted into an operational radio telescope). It also has a 7.5 m diameter C-Band All Sky Survey antenna, although this is used for development and training. It further hosts satellite laser ranging systems.
KAT-7 was originally an engineering test-bed for MeerKAT, but also subsequently converted into an operational instrument. However, being designed as a test-bed means its receivers are not as reliable as those of MeerKAT.
MeerKAT will have 64 dish antennas when completed, which should be soon, but it has already been doing science. It is intended to be both a major astronomical instrument in its own right and a precursor to the international SKA radio telescope array, which will be the world’s biggest radio telescope.
SKA SA has also been leading the AVN initiative to develop radio astronomy in other African countries. The AVN member States are also the SKA African partner countries. They are Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. The initiative involves converting obsolete large telecommunications dishes in these countries into radio astronomy antennas. (As SKA partner countries, they will host outstations for SKA Phase 2.) The first of these dishes to be successfully converted into a radio telescope is the 32 m dish at Kutunse, near Accra, in Ghana.