Department of Physics represents UP at MeerKAT inauguration

Posted on July 17, 2018

Prof Roger Deane from the Department of Physics represented UP at the launch of the MeerKAT radio telescope, inaugurated by Deputy President David Mabuza in the Northern Cape. Built and operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), the MeerKAT comprises 64 radio dishes, each measuring approximately 13,5 m in diameter and spread across an 8 km region in the Karoo. The MeerKAT is already the world’s most powerful telescope of its kind, and forms part of the future Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international project which will be the largest scientific infrastructure on earth.

SARAO has been heralded across the world not only for reaching this significant milestone on time and within the budget, but also for already having produced a ground-breaking image of the region surrounding the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way. This is said to be only a preview of the great discoveries anticipated with this South African telescope.

In collaboration with Prof Ian Heywood (Oxford University and Rhodes University); Prof Deane heads an initiative to carry out deep observations of distant galaxies using the MeerKAT telescope (see image).  He explains that the “initiative aims to make the most distant direct detections to date of neutral hydrogen gas, the fuel for star formation. This will only be possible using the supreme sensitivity that the MeerKAT offers, in combination with a rare phenomenon called strong gravitational lensing, predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity”.

Prof Roger Deane of UP (left) with his long-time collaborator Prof Ian Heywood (Oxford University, Rhodes University), who played a critical role in generating SARAO’s ground-breaking MeerKAT image of the centre of the Milky Way (seen in the background). Image credit: SARAO and Prof Oleg Smirnov.

In addition to offering world-leading, stand-alone observations, the MeerKAT will also spend some of its time performing joint observations with some of the biggest radio antennas on the planet, forming a single, earth-sized telescope. This enables the sharpest images yet in astronomy to be made, seeing details about 50 times more clearly than what is possible with the Hubble Space Telescope. 

Ariel view of Meerkat. Photo: Prof  Roger Deane

‘UP has placed a strategic focus on becoming a global leader in this area en route to the SKA, which will ultimately include radio antennas spread across the African continent,’ says Prof Deane. ‘UP has strong existing expertise in data science, which will be critical in this endeavour. Cross-faculty collaborations will therefore be a primary focus of mine as we establish the UP astronomy research group in this the newly-opened MeerKAT era.’

- Author Shakira Hoosain

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