South Africa is a very exciting place to do astronomy for many reasons. The most prominent reason? The MeerKAT telescope. In this post, I’m (finally) going to write about the most talked-about telescope on the African continent and why I’m so excited about it! I’ll tell you about the telescope, my involvement in it and why it’s so groundbreaking.
What is MeerKAT?
In technical terms, MeerKAT is a 64-dish radio interferometer telescope and is the precursor to the Square Kilometer Array telescope. MeerKAT receives astronomical signals across its 64 dishes, which provides an extremely high level of sensitivity. These signals come in the form of radio waves – the same kind of radio waves that you use to listen to 5FM, make cellphone calls with and connect to the WiFi over. Since radio waves are commonly used all over the world for everyday tasks, detecting them from space is particularly challenging. This is why the Karoo was chosen as the location for MeerKAT and subsequently SKA. It’s far from most cities and people, in a special ‘radio-quiet’ zone. With very little radio interference in the area and the high sensitivity that comes with 64 radio dishes, MeerKAT is able to detect extremely faint signals from the distant universe right here in South Africa!
My MeerKAT work
Although I’m not directly involved in MeerKAT through the South African Radio Astronomical Observatory or using radio observations, my Masters research is part of one of the ‘Large Survey Projects’ that are in-progress. The project – called LADUMA (Looking At the Distant Universe with the MeerKAT Array) – will measure faint, neutral hydrogen gas far back in the universe’s history. Although this gas is very difficult to detect, it’s the most abundant element in the universe and fuels the birth of stars.
Why am I so excited about this?
MeerKAT has – and will continue to – produced amazing science and it’s only a year old! It has already produced two papers published in Nature (most excitingly – the discovery of giant, radio bubbles at the center of the Milky Way) and its sensitivity has exceeded expectations. The technical upgrades and new modes that are still in development and are being added to the telescope will continue to improve its effectiveness and unlock new kinds of science.
Aside from the science – MeerKAT is South African! Unlike Table Mountain and the Kruger National Park and several other things that we’re proud of as South Africans – MeerKAT is something that we’ve built. When I was growing up, telescopes like the SKA, MeerKAT and SALT were a source of inspiration and interest for me as a future scientist. Now, it’s incredible to be part of these big projects.
MeerKAT has also created so many opportunities for South Africans to study and train as astronomers, engineers, computer scientists, and develop expertise in many different areas. Although many people work in astronomy and astronomy-related fields, a large portion of people take these skills to other fields that contribute to the country.
Overall, MeerKAT is proof that South Africa can be at the forefront of science and technology. It’s a massive undertaking that we’ve not only succeeded at – but excelled at. When there are so many other problems that we’re facing as a country – it’s a source of hope and a sign of progress. The future of science in South Africa is bright.