South Africa’s MeerKAT produces its first significant images of space

The South African MeerKAT radio telescope has produced its first significant images of space, revealing previously undetected galaxies in a tiny patch of sky.

MeerKAT, which is based in the Northern Cape and will eventually become the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere, is a precursor to the highly prestigious Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope which will be constructed in the Karoo. It will be integrated into the mid-frequency component of SKA Phase 1.

Four MeerKAT receptors were fully assembled, integrated and verified in 2014, while the project is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.

SKA South Africa announced today that the first images were produced with an observation using just four of the eventual 64 dishes, “revealing never before seen radio galaxies in the distant universe,” it said in a media statement.

“Unlike an ordinary picture of the sky that mainly shows stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy, these dots arise from galaxies in the distant universe emitting radio waves at a frequency of 1400 MHz (15 times the frequency of FM radio stations),” SKA explained.

Dr Fernando Camilo, SKA South Africa Chief Scientist, said that what makes these images so special, is that it covers less than 0.01 percent of the entire celestial sphere, detected more than 50 galaxies in such a small patch of sky, observed with only 4 dishes.

“Imagine the discoveries that are going to be made surveying the entire South African sky with the full 64-dish MeerKAT,” he said.

“This wonderful result has enormous significance. Just 10 years ago I would not have imagined that we would be hosting the MeerKAT Science Workshop in South Africa and building a world-leading radio telescope. This image and all that lies behind it adds to our confidence that this very complex project will be the success that we have been planning for over the past decade,” Prof Justin Jonas, Associate Director for Science and Engineering, SKA South Africa.

This shows the previous image, overlaid with yellow ellipses indicating radio sources detected in a similar observation done with KAT-7 (a 7-dish precursor to MeerKAT, also located in the Karoo); and green ellipses showing radio sources detected in the Australian SUMMS survey of the Southern sky.

While construction on the much-larger SKA is expected to start next year, all focus is now on the use of the MeerKAT system.

One of the function of MeerKAT will be to conduct an ultra-deep survey of neutral hydrogen gas in the distant universe.

“One of the aims of the Pulsar Timing programme is to help detect gravitational waves from a collection of coalescing super-massive black holes at the centres of distant galaxies.”

Even if you are not into astronomy, you have to appreciate the excitement and significance of these images. Once complete (and even now) the telescope system will be one of the biggest in the world, giving us a view into distant galaxies like never before.




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