MeerKAT telescope team honoured for spectacular discoveries

South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope team has been honoured with the Royal Astronomical Society's (RAS) 2023 Group Achievement Award.

In a statement, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which is responsible for managing all radio astronomy initiatives and facilities in South Africa, says the RAS recognised the MeerKAT team “for a series of spectacular observations in radio astronomy, the highlight being the images of the Galactic Centre region and the spectacular radio bubbles”.

In addition, the RAS says the MeerKAT team has supported the development of science and technology in Africa and stress-tested technology for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Previous winners of the award include: the EAGLE simulations Team (2022); the Event Horizon Telescope Team (2021); the Astropy Project Team (2020); the Galaxy Zoo Team (2019); the Planck Team (2018); and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Team (2017).

Founded in 1820, the UK-based RAS encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science.

Its more than 4 000 members (fellows) include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

MeerKAT, originally the Karoo Array Telescope, is a radio telescope inaugurated in 2018, consisting of 64 radio dishes that are 13.5m in diameter and spread over an area of 8km in Northern Cape.

SKA precursor

SARAO notes that MeerKAT is the most sensitive telescope of its kind in the world and is a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, to be built in SA and Australia.

Construction projects valued €300 million (R5.5 billion) at SKA sites in South Africa and Australia commenced in December last year.

In South Africa, the first phase of SKA construction will eventually see 133 SKA dishes added to the existing 64 MeerKAT dishes to form a mid-frequency instrument.

“On behalf of the team of scientists, engineers and technicians that developed the MeerKAT telescope from an ambitious notion into a tangible scientific instrument delivering extraordinary early science results, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory expresses gratitude to the RAS for the generous recognition of the technical and scientific achievement associated with this Group Achievement Award,” says SARAO.

“The MeerKAT project derived from the aspiration to have a South African SKA precursor telescope that would be a powerful instrument in its own right. This award is accepted with pride because it confirms the successful rendition of this aspiration into physical reality on African soil.”

It notes that the greater MeerKAT team extends beyond SARAO, as indicated by the diversity of institutions recognised through the award.

“Colleagues and partner institutions from around the world have expressed their confidence in MeerKAT by providing instrumentation, software and know-how to enhance the telescope capabilities, and in turn the scientific exploitation of the telescope capabilities has involved collegial international partnerships.”

Looking to the future, SARAO says the success of MeerKAT demonstrates that the scientific and technological prerequisites for the SKA telescope in South Africa (known as SKA-Mid) are in place.

“We are excited by the scientific opportunities and discoveries that will derive from the progression from MeerKAT to SKA-Mid, via the MeerKAT extension project currently underway,” the observatory says.

Ground-breaking findings

Of late, the MeerKAT radio telescope has been used by scientists to make ground-breaking findings.

In April last year, a team of researchers discovered a powerful megamaser – a radio-wavelength laser indicative of colliding galaxies.

In February, a team of astronomers made use of the radio telescope to find the most detailed images of the largest cosmic shock wave visible from earth. These gigantic shock waves are much larger than our entire galaxy and form when clusters of galaxies collide in what are the most energetic events after the Big Bang.

In January, SARAO released a new MeerKAT telescope image of the centre of our galaxy, showing radio emission from the region with unprecedented clarity and depth.

In December 2021, astronomers utilised the MeerKAT to discover a mysterious chain of hydrogen gas clouds the size of a massive galaxy.

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