What is MeerKAT?
The South African MeerKAT radio telescope, built some 90 km outside the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon, is a forerunner to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope and will be integrated into the mid-frequency component of SKA Phase 1. The SKA Project is an international enterprise to build the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, and will be located in Africa and Australia. It places South Africa squarely on the world map.
This is part of the incentive for the African VLBI Network (AVN). VLBI stands for very long baseline interferometry, in which four or more radio telescopes observe a single cosmic object simultaneously and in effect act as one big telescope.
The MeerKAT telescope will be a collection of 64 interlinked receptors. A receptor is the complete antenna structure, with the main reflector, sub-reflector and all receivers, digitisers and other electronics installed. Electromagnetic waves from cosmic radio sources bounce off the main reflector, then off the sub-reflector, and are then focused in the feed horn, which is part of the receiver.
The telescope was originally known as the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) that would consist of 20 receptors. The SA government increased the budget to build 64 receptors. Then it was re-named to “MeerKAT” – ie “more of KAT”, but The telescope was originally known as the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) that would consist of 20 receptors. The SA government increased the budget to build 64 receptors. Then it was re-named to “MeerKAT” – ie “more of KAT”, but also a small mammal that lives in the Karoo region.
Recently South Africa’s first MeerKAT antenna was inaugurated, one of 64 that will dot the site.
It stands 20m above the normally parched and bare landscape, gazing at the prototype seven Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7) dishes in the distance. But this is only the beginning.
When complete at the end of 2016, MeerKAT will form part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the largest radio telescope in the world and the most sensitive radio telescope of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
About five years of observing time on the telescope have already been allocated to more than 500 radio astronomers, 85 of which are from Africa.
Science Minister Derek Hanekom said at the inauguration: “What we are witnessing today is the fruit of an idea that was planted many years ago. But most significantly, we have come together over space and time with a clear sense of collective purpose, a purpose that is almost outrageously ambitious and far-sighted.”