DST hails MeerKAT success

45

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has hailed the first interferometric image created by four of the BAE Systems-built 12-metre radio telescope dishes making up the MeerKAT Precursor Array (MPA).

Four of the seven MPA dishes were linked on Monday to form an integrated system to produce an interferometric image of the Centaurus A galaxy. “It is important in terms of the African bid to host what will be the world’s largest radio telescope, the SKA (Square Kilometre Array), because it demonstrates that Africans have the technical expertise to build such a complex working instrument. This will increase our chances of winning the SKA bid,” the DST said in a statement.
“The KAT-7 (Karoo Array Telescope, seven dishes) will serve as both an engineering test-bed and as an operational radio telescope. (KAT-7 is the former name of the MPA.) The MeerKAT will be one of the largest scientific research facilities in the world and will consolidate Africa as a major global hub for astronomy in the world,” adds the DST.
“It will provide unrivalled opportunities for scientists and engineers from across Africa to engage with transformational science and cutting-edge instrumentation, as well as to collaborate in joint projects with the most renowned universities and research institutions in the world.”

The first combined signals (or “fringes”) were obtained from a range of celestial radio sources in December using the first two fully equipped antennas. The first Raster scan image was produced in March by scanning individual antennas across the Centaurus A radio galaxy. This provided a very successful end-to-end demonstration of antenna hardware, system stability, pointing accuracy and software, the (SKA) South African Project (SKA-SAP) that runs MeerKAT said in a statement earlir this week.

Once the antennas were demonstrated to work well individually, another major milestone was achieved last month: phase closure (using three antennas) and amplitude closure (using four antennas), which demonstrated that the underlying system was working as expected and the antennas could be linked together.

SKA-SAP director Dr Bernie Fanaroff says he is “extremely pleased by the rapid progress and early results obtained from the first four MPA antennas. “This shows that we are well on track with the development of our SKA site, and the development of the systems and understanding required to build and operate advanced scientific instruments such as MeerKAT and the SKA. We have a world-class team and we are proud of them.”
“The KAT-7 will serve as both an engineering test-bed and as an operational radio telescope. The MeerKAT will be one of the largest scientific research facilities in the world and will consolidate Africa as a major global hub for astronomy in the world,” the DST added. “It will provide unrivalled opportunities for scientists and engineers from across Africa to engage with transformational science and cutting-edge instrumentation, as well as to collaborate in joint projects with the most renowned universities and research institutions in the world.”
“We have started with seven dishes and the next step is to build 80. But this will be done on an incremental basis,” DST spokesman Lunga Ngqengelele added. He says the seven dishes of the MPA are now operational, but the next 73 dishes that will make up the 80-dish MeerKAT will only be built if SA gets the bid for the SKA. The results of the bid will be announced in 2012, he notes.



This contradicts earlier statements that the full MeerKAT was scheduled to be completed by December 2012 and commissioned in 2013. It was set to cost R860 million and forms part of the R1.6 billion budget Cabinet last year approved for the country to win the right to host the 3000 to 5000-dish 1.5 billion euro (R160 billion) SKA. Most of the observable universe faces the southern hemisphere of earth and SA is regarded as one of the best vantage points on the planet to study space. SA and Australia are both bidding to host SKA and both have precursor sites near towns called Carnarvon.