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MeerKAT radio telescope inaugurated in SA – reveals clearest view yet of centre of the Milky Way

13 July 2018

Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa, Mr David Mabuza, today officially inaugurated the MeerKAT radio telescope. After a decade in design and construction, this project of South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology has now begun science operations. At the launch event, a panorama obtained with the new telescope was unveiled that reveals extraordinary detail in the region surrounding the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy. This is one of several very exciting new views of the Universe already observed by the telescope.

“We wanted to show the science capabilities of this new instrument”, says Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which built and operates MeerKAT in the semi-arid Karoo region of the Northern Cape.

“The centre of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena – but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes”, according to Camilo. The centre of the Milky Way, 25,000 light-years away from Earth and lying behind the constellation Sagittarius (the “Teapot”), is forever enshrouded by intervening clouds of gas and dust, making it invisible from Earth using ordinary telescopes. However, infrared, X-ray, and in particular, radio wavelengths penetrate the obscuring dust and open a window into this distinctive region with its unique 4 million solar mass black hole. “Although it’s early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be optimised, we decided to go for it – and were stunned by the results.”

“This image is remarkable”, says Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, one of the world’s leading experts on the mysterious filamentary structures present near the central black hole but nowhere else in the Milky Way. These long and narrow magnetised filaments were discovered in the 1980s using the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico, but their origin has remained a mystery. “The MeerKAT image has such clarity”, continues Yusef-Zadeh, “it shows so many features never before seen, including compact sources associated with some of the filaments, that it could provide the key to cracking the code and solve this three-decade riddle”.

Yusef-Zadeh adds that “MeerKAT now provides an unsurpassed view of this unique region of our galaxy. It’s an exceptional achievement, congratulations to our South African colleagues. They’ve built an instrument that will be the envy of astronomers everywhere and will be in great demand for years to come”.

About MeerKAT

MeerKAT is a South African project, a precursor to the larger international Square Kilometre Array (SKA). It is managed by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), where most of the specialised hardware and associated software was designed and built in cooperation with industrial partners. MeerKAT consists of 64 antennas (or dishes), each 13.5 meters in diameter, located on baselines (distances between antenna pairs) of up to 8 km. The dishes are of a highly efficient design with up to four cryogenic receiver systems operating in different bands of the radio spectrum. The first installed set of receivers operates between frequencies of 900 MHz and 1670 MHz. The vast amounts of data from the 64 dishes (up to 275 Gbytes per second) are processed in real time by a “correlator”, followed by a “science processor”, both purpose-built. After further offline analysis, images of the radio sky are generated. Eventually, MeerKAT will be incorporated into Phase 1 of the SKA-MID telescope.



MeerKAT a beacon of economic development in Carnarvon

The newly-launched MeerKAT radio telescope, the gem of the Karoo and the precursor of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), has brought more than just astronomers to Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

Billed as the most sensitive radio telescope in the world after scientists unveiled breath-taking images from the centre of the milky way galaxy, the project has empowered local businesses, contributed to infrastructure investment and opened up educational and employment opportunities for the small town, says Kareeberg Municipality Mayor Norman van Wyk.

The prospects of major scientific research has attracted scientists and tourists to the local town, and that has led to local contractors getting a lot of work.

This includes, among others, visitors and scientists spending R3 million on catering companies, R4 million on transport and local entrepreneurs being given business support by the MeerKAT project managers.

Van Wyk says young people in the area are also reaping the benefits of the projects by accessing bursary opportunities to study at technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges.

SKA South Africa facilitates human capital development programmes to 22 schools that are located in town that surround the SKA project, which reaches 5 400 learners.

In addition to a tarred road and several Wi-Fi hotspots in the local community, 72 students are studying at technical colleges for further education and training.

“I am mentioning these things as highlights of the success that comes out of a partnership between government and the private sector. SKA has also committed to help register local black entrepreneurs on the central supply database to ensure that everyone has a chance to tender for government contracts,” Van Wyk says.

In his address at the launch of the 64-dish MeerKAT on 13 July in Carnarvon, Deputy President David Mabuza said 75% of the components that went into the construction of the MeerKAT were sourced locally.

During construction, more than R134 million was spent on local suppliers, and 351 people were trained by major SKA contractors.

“In addition, more than R110 million was awarded to 16 small and medium enterprises through a financial assistance programme.

“This has empowered local industry and institutions to acquire skills and expertise in advanced technologies, and to grow their international competitiveness,” Mabuza said.

The Deputy President said there was no doubt that the launch of the MeerKAT further strengthens the prospects of a larger role for South Africa in the construction of the SKA, and promises numerous benefits for the country and the region as a whole.

“There has been a visible impact on the real estate sector of the Northern Cape, which has led to new economic opportunities for local communities.

“It gives me pleasure that the SKA project has had a direct impact on job creation, thus changing the lives of many families. The SKA project has created 7 284 employment opportunities through the construction of the MeerKAT and related projects.

“These include land acquisition, the resurfacing of 80km of road to the site, the construction of 110km of power lines, fibre rollout, as well as the MeerKAT data centre,” Mabuza said.  –






February/March 2020








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