The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (Sarao) has announced that 38 South African-led astronomy projects will use the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope array. The leaders of these projects include postdoctoral researchers (“postdocs”) as well as senior professors, based at ten South African universities and National Facilities of the National Research Foundation.
When the MeerKAT project was launched, ten years ago, the then SKA South Africa (now absorbed into Sarao) released a global call for proposals for the use of the then future telescope array. As a result, eight large experiments were chosen, which will use 66% of MeerKAT’s available time. The remaining 33% is known as “open time” and will be allocated to smaller-scale experiments, which will be selected during periodic “open time calls” for observation projects.
The 38 projects were selected from 47 proposals through a “community-based review”, these proposals being stimulated by the first MeerKAT open time call, released by Sarao late last year. These projects range from studies of the star closest to our Solar System, Proxima Centauri, to studies of hydrogen gas half-way across the universe.
“We knew that the growing South African radio astronomy community was keen to use this magnificent telescope in novel ways, and indeed we received many good proposals with clever ideas,” reported Sarao chief scientist Dr Fernando Camilo. “While we expected postdocs to lead some proposals, we were surprised and very gratified to receive five proposals led by post-graduate students – including some of the very best! This bodes well for the future of South African radio astronomy.”
“[A] decade ago, such a call for South African-led projects would have resulted in a handful of proposals,” pointed out Sarao MD Dr Rob Adam. But a radio astronomy science and engineering education and skills development programme was executed in parallel with the development and construction of the MeerKAT instrument. “This directly accounts for the success we see today, with this large number of young South Africans poised to use one of the world’s great research instruments.”
The universities and research institutions involved are: the universities of Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal, Pretoria, South Africa, Western Cape, and Witwatersrand, North-West University, Rhodes University, Sarao itself, and the South African (optical) Astronomical Observatory. Sarao is responsible for all radio astronomy facilities and initiatives in South Africa, including MeerKAT in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape province and the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory in Gauteng.