The MeerKAT Radio Telescope Will Help Solve Cosmic Mysteries
Experts are working on a scientific mega-project to help solve cosmic mysteries such as dark matter and identifying extraterrestrial life. That project has now gotten a little easier with the introduction of the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope whose home is in the remote South African town of Carnarvon.
This is good news for Asgardia who aims to create a free, independent nation outside of planet Earth. With projects such as these, it could help Asgardia accomplish their long-term objective of setting up habitable platforms in low-Earth orbit.
MeerKAT cost 4.4 billion rands to build and the telescope will be integrated into the complex Square Kilometre Array (SKA) instrument, which when fully functional in the late 2020s will be the biggest and most powerful radio telescope in the world.
Scientists explained that the SKA would have up to 3,000 dishes co-hosted in Africa and Australia capable of surveying the sky 10,000 times faster with 50 times the sensitivity of any other telescope and generate images that exceed the resolution quality of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Fernando Camilo, chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory which built and operates the telescope stated that MeerKAT would answer some of the most critical scientific questions in modern astrophysics, such as how did galaxies form, how are they evolving, how did we come to be here? Camilo added that for those purposes MeerKAT is the best in the world.
In fact, during the inauguration attended by government officials and foreign dignitaries, Camilo unveiled new images taken by MeerKAT of the area surrounding the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, about 25,000 light years away.
In an interview with Reuters Camilo explained that they didn’t expect to use the telescope so early on, and it wasn’t even optimized, but to turn it to the centre of the galaxy and obtain these awe-inspiring images, which are the best in the world really shows the power of MeerKAT.
MeerKAT builds on the work of the KAT 7 (Karoo Array Telescope), constructed in the vast semi-desert Karoo region north of Cape Town to show South Africa’s ability to host the SKA. Its name is a play on words because in Afrikaans “meer” means “more,” meaning “more KAT,” but it also refers to the small mammal native to the Karoo and famed for standing on its hind legs to view the world.
MeerKAT isn’t only breaking ground when it comes to astronomy research. The telescope is also pushing boundaries when it comes to big data and high-performance computing. It is helping to develop systems that can handle the immense amount of data fed from each individual antenna to supercomputers buried deep underground to help stop radio interference.
When you first lay eyes upon the most prominent radio telescope of its kind in the southern hemisphere, MeerKAT looks like a cluster of eggs when you first see it.
But up close, each sensitive dish is nearly as high as a three storey building, rotating on a fixed pedestal as it surveys the sky. The site it sits on was selected due to its remoteness, with hills working as an extra shield against radio interference. The location of the project is the central African base for hundreds of antennae that will eventually be placed as far as Kenya and Ghana.
Rob Adam, an SKA international board member, stated that the first stage of SKA 1 in South Africa is to add 133 antennas to that (of MeerKAT).
The expansion is expected to begin in 2019, said Adam, with the first prototype dish built in China already on site about 450 kilometres north of Cape Town in the Northern Cape province. MeerKAT will work independently before being incorporated into SKA 1 sometime around 2023, according to Adam.
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