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Mysteries of Universe in Focus for South African Mega Telescope

Published: December 5, 2022
(Image: Screenshot / Reuters)
(Image: Screenshot / Reuters)

South African officials and scientists on Monday (December 5) celebrated a milestone towards building the world’s largest radio astronomy instrument, which is co-hosted with Australia and aims to unlock mysteries of the universe.

The construction launch outside the remote town of Carnarvon, Northern Cape, marks the next phase of developing a complex instrument aimed at revealing events since the cosmic dawn when the first stars and galaxies were formed.

South Africa said it would add 133 dishes to its 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope to create SKA-Mid in the next phase of developing a so-called Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

“It all begins here, at the foundation. This isn’t the foundation to your house. This really is an incredibly challenging engineering,” said Joseph McMullin, deputy director-general at the SKA Observatory (SKAO) intergovernmental organization.

MeerKAT, which will be incorporated into SKA-Mid, has delivered images of phenomena including stellar nurseries and the chaotic region around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, some 25,000 light-years from earth.

Chosen for its remoteness, with hills providing an extra shield against radio interference, the vast protected reserve around Carnarvon is the main African base for hundreds of antennae that could eventually be sited as far afield as Kenya and Ghana.

The dishes are designed to connect with each other to form one giant telescope and, with the new additions, expected to be operational by 2030, enhanced image clarity and resolution.

While tripling the number of dishes at MeerKAT to form a mid-frequency instrument, officials said Australia would host a low-frequency telescope array of 131,072 antennae, each two meters tall and resembling Christmas trees.

Production: Shafiek Tassiem, Esa Alexander, Catherine Schenck, Olga Vyshnevska, Toyin Amusan