Young South Africans chosen to use MeerKAT telescope

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MeerKat 1 radio telescope in 2018.
MeerKat 1 radio telescope in 2018.

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) yesterday announced the selection of 38 South African-led projects that will use the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape.

These range from studies of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun, to investigations of hydrogen gas, the fuel that makes up stars, half-way across the Universe.

The leaders of these projects range from students to senior professors based at 10 South African universities and National Research Foundation National Facilities.

The principal investigators (PIs) of the accepted proposals originate from North-West University, Rhodes University, University of Cape Town, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of South Africa, University of Pretoria, University of the Western Cape, University of the Witwatersrand, the South African Astronomical Observatory and SARAO.

The post-graduate students who are the PIs of successful proposals are Tariq Blecher, Miriam Nyamai, Lerato Sebokolodi, Julia Healy and Benjamin Hugo.

South Africa's MeerKAT radio telescope was officially launched in July last year. Made up of 64 dishes, each 13.5m in diameter, the MeerKAT array is distributed across a span of 8km in the remote area of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape. The 64 MeerKAT antennas are standing in the Karoo.

MeerKAT is a precursor to the larger international Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Ten years ago, with MeerKAT in the planning stages, the Department of Science and Technology's SKA South Africa project issued a worldwide call for proposals to use the future telescope.

According to SARAO, eight large projects then selected will use two-thirds of the available telescope time.

The remaining observing time on the world-class telescope is to be allocated through periodic opportunities for so-called "open time" observing proposals.

SARAO says following a community-based review, the projects announced yesterday were selected from the 47 received in response to the first MeerKAT open time call, issued by SARAO in late 2018.

"We knew that the growing South African radio astronomy community was keen to use this magnificent telescope in novel ways," says SARAO chief scientist Dr Fernando Camilo. "Indeed, we received many good proposals with clever ideas."

Twelve of the projects are led by young post-doctoral researchers. "While we expected post-docs to lead some proposals, we were surprised and very gratified to receive five proposals led by post-graduate students, including some of the very best. This bodes well for the future of South African radio astronomy," says Camilo.

According to SARAO managing director Dr Rob Adam, "a decade ago, such a call for South African-led projects would have resulted in a handful of proposals. But while designing and building MeerKAT, in parallel, we invested in the people, developing a human capital development programme closely tied to the science and engineering of MeerKAT and its associated technologies.

"This directly accounts for the success we see today, with this large number of young South Africans poised to use one of the world's great research instruments."

The projects selected are expected to be observed with MeerKAT over the next several months.

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