HartRAO 50

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South Africa’s US-built Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) has turned 50. The 26m-diameter radio telescope, built with some haste in early 1961, cost US space agency NASA $1 million – then R1 million.

Constructed as a Deep Space Instrumentation Facility (DSIF), the dish was meant to to track and communicate with US space probes headed for the moon, Venus and Mars. The Johannesburg Tracking Station, or Deep Space Instrumentation Facility 51 (DSIF 51), was declared operational on July 1, 1961, in time for the Ranger 1 mission to photograph the moon.

Hartebeesthoek next helped track probes launched as part of the Pioneer programme as well as the Mariner missions to Venus and Mars. In doing so, it received the first close-up images of Mars, taken by Mariner IV in July 1965.

After decommissioning by NASA, the station was handed over to the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which has operated it ever since.

In his speech to mark the occasion, Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom, paid tribute to HartRAO, saying the facility has played a critical role in helping to expand the frontiers of scientific knowledge. “In our view, as the Department of Science and Technology, the various partnerships HartRAO has forged with various institutions over the years have enabled our country to benefit from a wider pool of knowledge in the areas of radio astronomy and space geodesy.
“But more fundamentally, they have greatly assisted our efforts to improve the quality of our research facilities and their intellectual output,” he said. “HartRAO has also played a crucial role in the training and development of students, particularly students from previously disadvantaged areas, providing access to science, engineering and technology to people who have historically remained sidelined.”

Hanekom added that the next-generation MeerKAT radio telescope array project will go ahead whether or not this country succeeds in its bid to host the €1.5-billion international Square Kilometre Array (SKA). South Africa and Australia are shortlisted to host the SKA, which at around 3000 dishes will be by far the biggest radio telescope yet built. “Whether we get it [the SKA] or not, we are proceeding with the MeerKAT,” he told his audience Friday morning. “We’ve budgeted for it [MeerKAT], at least 64 dishes. It will be the biggest radio telescope in the world until the SKA.”

Scientists and officials are from today meeting in Banff, Canada, to further discuss engineering and other challenges surrounding the SKA. Among those in attendance are SA’s Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor and her Director General, Dr Phil Mjwara, as well as Dr Bernie Fanaroff, Director of SA’s SKA bid. A final decision on the location of the SKA.

Cabinet in 2009 approved a R1.6 billion budget to win the right to host the instrument. This includes the construction of two demonstration instruments, KAT-7 and the larger MeerKAT. Construction of the seven-dish Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7) began in July 2009 and was completed in January 2010. MeerKAT is scheduled for completion by December next year and should commission in 2013 at a cost of R860 million.