Wednesday, April 9, 2014

First MeerKAT receptor launched

The receptor stands 19.5 meters and weighs 42 tons!
THE first MeerKAT antenna and high-tech center was launched two weeks ago (27 March) in the Karoo observation site 90 kilometres from Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

The launch was that of the first of 64 dishes being constructed as part of the MeerKAT project, a pathfinder to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope with a collecting area of one million square metres. The launch also includes a new state-of-the-art data centre for the MeerKAT telescope which has been constructed in an underground bunker.

The inauguration was attended by the Minister of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) Derek Hanekom as well as various ministers from the many SKA partner countries. These included representatives from the Australia, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagasar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

“The relatively young science of radio astronomy has, to give you only one example, made a major and direct contribution to the development of wifi technology, which has become an everyday part of our existence. Intellectually, what can be more important than seeking a better understanding of our cosmic origins, understanding how the universe was born, how galaxies and stars were formed, how the Sun and the Earth were born, and how life originated?” said Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom at the inauguration.

The project has been met with excitement locally as Thulani Jili, a senior lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, is working on getting the university’s Physics Department involved. He sees the project as a great opportunity, having the most powerful scientific instrument in the world in “our backyard.”

“This is the biggest project that science has ever undertaken and we want to be involved with it.  That is why we want to introduce astronomy as a course and we hope this will go some way in contributing to the project,” said Jili.

The antenna stands at 19.5 metres tall and weighs 42 tons. Its design is based on the “Offset Gregorian” design which means each of the 64 antennae will have two reflectors- a main reflector with a 13.5 metre projected diameter and a smaller sub-reflector with a 3.8 metre diameter.

When completed, the MeerKAT array of 64 identical antennae will be connected by 170 km of underground fibre-optic cable. In this way all 64 receptors can operate as a single highly sensitive astronomical instrument, controlled and monitored remotely from the MeerKAT control room in Cape Town.

The full array of 64 receptors will be completed by the end of 2017, but astronomers from all over the world have already signed up to start using it as soon as 16 receptors have been commissioned (around June 2015).

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