First section of MeerKAT telescope goes live

The first 16 dishes of the MeerKAT radio telescope are located at the Square Kilometre Array core site outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.
The first 16 dishes of the MeerKAT radio telescope are located at the Square Kilometre Array core site outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has unveiled the first 16 of the eventual 64 dishes that will make up the MeerKAT radio telescope.

Speaking at the unveiling, DST minister Naledi Pandor said with only 16 dishes launched so far, the MeerKAT is already the best of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

She said: "This is astounding because we were supposed to reach that goal only with 32 dishes. We can now expect that when the full 64 dishes are in place at the end of next year, it will be the best telescope of its kind in the world.

"It is a testament to the dedicated work of hundreds of engineers, scientists, managers and other staff, and South African and international industrial partners, as well as the support of the government and people of SA for more than a decade," she added.

Scientific instruments

The MeerKAT radio telescope is the precursor of phase one of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). SKA will be built in two main phases, with construction of the first phase planned to start in 2017/18 and some elements operational by 2020 and full operation under way in 2025.

The SKA project is an international effort to build the world's largest radio telescope to be hosted in SA and Australia. SA's Karoo desert in the Northern Cape will host the core of the mid-frequency dish array, ultimately extending over the African continent.

Eventually, the SKA will be made up of thousands of dishes that will enable astronomers to survey the universe in detail and survey the entire sky much faster, and in more detail, than any system currently in existence.

According to Pandor: "SKA will translate innovation and development activities into economic benefits through commercialisation, technology localisation and human capital development."

While it has been envisaged that all 64 dishes of the MeerKAT will be built by the end of 2017, the radio telescope is already showing its capacity.

In May, with only four dishes, the MeerKAT produced a remarkable view of the sky, revealing never seen before radio galaxies in the distant universe.

At the weekend, using the16-dish MeerKAT, a new image of the radio sky showed more than 1 300 radio galaxies in the distant universe compared to 70 in the previous best image.

"The launch of the MeerKAT AR1 (Array Release 1) and its first results are a significant milestone for SA as it celebrates the new era of scientific progress after the dawn of democracy and freedom," noted Pandor.

Dr Rob Adam, project director of SKA SA, said the launch of MeerKAT AR1 and its first results was a significant milestone for the country.

"Through MeerKAT, SA is playing a key role in the design and development of technology for the SKA. The South African team of more than 200 young scientists, engineers and technicians, in collaboration with industry, local and foreign universities and institutions, has developed the technologies and systems for MeerKAT."

Economic potential

Economic development minister Ebrahim Patel stated government has recognised the potential of MeerKAT to create jobs and up-skill local people.

Patel, who is also a key member of the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (PICC), said the progress of the project so far has demonstrated how it can contribute to the economy as a job driver and a catalyst for development.

He said: "This is a great moment for SA. It is an example of what we can do as a country - big science, large infrastructure and innovation that we bring into the economy. This can create jobs and give opportunities to the economy."

According to Patel, infrastructure investment is a key priority of both the National Development Plan and the New Growth Path. He noted SKA is one of 18 strategic infrastructure projects identified by the PICC.

"About 422 people are currently working as a result of SKA through initial infrastructure projects. 54% of these are young people, which shows youth employment has been incorporated into the SKA and the MeerKAT."

The MeerKAT and SKA projects will have a huge impact on the country's economy, stated Patel.

Read time 3min 50sec
Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
IT in government editor

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba is the IT in government editor at ITWeb. She reports on tech initiatives, policies and digital transformation strategies in government, banking and education. She holds an honour's degree in journalism from Rhodes University. Behind that smile, she is plotting how best to get government officials to respond to her emails before deadline :)

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