South Africa Has Its First Ultra-sensitive Radio Telescope

The MeerKAT image shows shows the central regions of our galaxy. The colour scheme represents the brightness of the radio waves recorded by the telescope Image SARAO

The SKA will comprise a forest of 3,000 dishes spread over an area of a square kilometre across remote terrain in several African countries, as well as Australia, to allow astronomers to peer deeper into space with unparalleled detail.

They also are releasing an image described as the "clearest view yet" of the center of our galaxy.

The global consortium building the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, has support from countries including Canada, China, India, Italy, Britain, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

Artist Impression of dipole antenna – Swinburne Astronomy Productions  ICRAR  U. Cambridge  ASTRON
Artist Impression of dipole antenna – Swinburne Astronomy Productions ICRAR U. Cambridge ASTRON

MeerKAT is made up of 64 dishes each measuring 13.5 m (44.3 ft) in diameter, spaced up to 8 km (5 mi) apart and spread across the dusty Karoo region of South Africa.

Researchers said the panorama captured an area of about 1,000 light years by 500 light years.

The centre of the Milky Way is incredibly hard to photograph, not only because it's 25,000 light-years away, but also because it lies behind the constellation Sagittarius and is constantly enshrouded by clouds of gas and dust, making it invisible from Earth using optical telescopes. However, radio wavelengths penetrate the obscuring dust and open a window into this distinctive region and its black hole.

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"The MeerKAT image has such clarity", said Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of the department of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University and one of the world's leading experts on the Milky Way, in a statement.

To boost the study, a 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope was inaugurated in Carnarvon, South Africa.

While it looks like a fiery swirling mess, the image shows never-before-seen features, such as the compact sources of those long, magnetised filaments that come off the central region.

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Scientists and officials expect that MeerKAT will continue to raise the profile of South African science. Data can be processed at a speed of 275 gigabytes per second. Data is processed in real time by a "correlator", followed by a "science processor", both purpose-built. The telescope has been under construction for the last decade. Chosen because of its remoteness, with hills providing an extra shield against radio interference, the project site is the main African base for hundreds of antennae that will eventually be placed as far as Kenya and Ghana.

Actually, MeerKAT is a followup to the KAT 7 (Karoo Array Telescope) project which was tested in the Karoo region, north of Cape Town to demonstrate South Africa's ability to host the SKA.

The MeerKAT offers a view of the sky unavailable in the northern hemisphere.

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