CSIR scientists contribute to MeerKAT


The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has contributed to the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT) by developing the precursor instrument for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). This new generation astronomical facility promises a “larger radio wave collecting area than any other facility in the world; it will be 50 times more sensitive and able to survey the sky 10 000 faster than any other imaging radio telescope array.”

In a recent newsletter the CSIR reports that the SKA is expected to last in excess of 30 years, and it is important that the materials used in the construction of the telescope go the distance. With the SKA, accuracy is of the highest importance and the materials should not deteriorate, warp or deviate even one centimetre from its original shape and form, the newsletter said.

The task of testing the composite materials used in the construction of the MeerKAT antennae dishes was assigned to the CSIR’s metals and metals processes researchers. In the CSIR’s mechanical testing and creep testing labs, various tests were performed in an initial round, with more tests to follow.

The CSIR’s Dr Willie du Preez explained that these “tests included the strength of the material, its fatigue life, extended load bearing and creep (or shape change over time). A second round of tests will include the material’s weathering ability, especially taking into account the harsh environmental elements in the Karoo that it would be exposed to over an extended period of time.”

The key component of the receiving antennas of the MeerKAT is the receiving array. It has to be sensitive enough to detect weak signals and capable of receiving a broad spectrum of signals across a wide area of sky. As part of a CSIR Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) flagship project, Prof David Davidson of Stellenbosch University undertook the simulation of the electromagnetic behaviour of both the receiving array and the dish to improve the design and performance. The CHPC is part of the national cyberinfrastructure initiative funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

In October 2010, the CSIR announced the selection of a Neotel/Broadband Infraco partnership to install a 10 Gigabit per second network to the South African Large Telescope (SALT) and (SKA) sites in the Northern Cape.

This network is a component of the South African National Research Network (SANReN), which is also funded by the DST as another part of its national cyberinfrastructure initiative. SANReN is being implemented by the CSIR. The network will connect both the SALT and SKA sites to SANReN’s national backbone network in Cape Town. The project will take 6- 10 months for completion.

Dr Daniel Adams, DST Chief Director Emerging Research Areas and Infrastructure said that the installation of the circuit to the SKA site close to the town of Carnavon will provide further proof that South Africa can provide the bandwidth needed to fulfil the requirements of the full SKA, and will serve as a significant boost to the South African SKA bid.”

Australia and southern Africa have been identified as the two shortlisted sites for the SKA and a decision as to the winner of the SKA bid is expected in 2012. The SKA programme is a collaboration between organisations in 19 countries.