R4.4 Billion MeerKAT Radio Telescope

Ujuh Reporter and Tech Financials

The launch of the R4.4 billion MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa heralds a number of new and interesting chapters for the country and the study of astronomy, the first being a panorama that reveals extraordinary detail in a region surrounding a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.it comes with an economic development aspect too.

Located some 90 km from Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, the MeerKAT is a precursor to the revolutionary Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope. The SKA Project is an international enterprise to build the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, and will be located in South Africa and Australia.

The SKA is set to conduct transformational science that will the understanding of the Universe and the laws of fundamental physics, monitoring the sky in unprecedented detail and mapping it hundreds of times faster than any current facility.

School children at the site of the KAT-7 radio telescope in Carnarvon, South Africa. Kevin Govender

School children at the site of the KAT-7 radio telescope in Carnarvon, South Africa. Kevin Govender

At the launch of the MeerKAT, South Africa’s Deputy President David Mabuza noted that  the establishment of the MeerKAT is a step towards stimulating thoughts of “what is possible” in the minds of marginalised communities, women and children. Furthermore, astronomy can also be put to use in perhaps surprising ways to boost development.

The MeerKAT telescope is made of an array 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).

After a decade in design and construction, this project of South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology has now begun science operations.

Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) which built and operates MeerKAT in the semi-arid Karoo region of the Northern Cape, said  its still early days for the MeerKAT it has already revealed a lot of interesting images. “We were stunned by the results.”

“The center of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena ­– but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes”

The center of the Milky Way, 25,000 light-years away from Earth and lying behind the constellation Sagittarius (the “Teapot”), is forever enshrouded by intervening clouds of gas and dust, making it invisible from Earth using ordinary telescopes. However, infrared, X-ray, and in particular, radio wavelengths penetrate the obscuring dust and open a window into this distinctive region with its unique 4 million solar mass black hole.

The construction of the KAT-7, MeerKAT, the HERA and PAPER has created a total number of 7, 284 direct and indirect jobs. To date, R136 million has been spent at local suppliers for the construction of the above-mentioned projects.

Local industry and institutions with appropriate existing technical expertise and interest were invited to participate in the SKA Pre-Construction Design Phase, and an amount of R55 million was awarded to 14 SMME’s via the SKA SA Financial Assistance Programme to develop skills and expertise in advanced technologies. A total of R1 million has been spent on training and development of people participating in these programmes.

Overall the localisation of the R3,2 billion MeerKAT and KAT-7 projects stands at 75%.


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