MeerKAT Telescope: South African Super Telescope Discovers Galaxies

Although the MeerKAT radio telescope has only just entered initial testing, early photographs have already lead to the discovery of 1,230 new galaxies.

MeerKAT, once completed in 2024, will be the largest and most powerful radio telescope in the world. It will eventually be composed of 64 individual antennas, each with a diameter of 13.5m each. It is being developed by South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology.

MeerKAT First Light image. [Image via SKA South Africa]

The telescope is being constructed in four separate phases, giving engineers the ability to test the system and iron out any bugs before moving forward. The images released represent the results of testing the just-completed phase AR1, composed of only 16 dishes. This initial image focuses on just 0.01 percent of the visible night sky and shows over 1,300 galaxies. Prior to this image being released, only 70 different galaxies were known to exist in this part of the celestial sphere. This initial phase is only able to receive bands within the span of 1.00 to 1.75GHz, while the final version will have four times more antennas, each able to receive within the bands of 590MHz to 14.5GHz. Considering how much we have already discovered with this ultra-low powered prototype, the completed version will have a massive impact on cosmic science research.

In a press release by SKA Africa, the Minister of Science and Technology stated how important this step was for South Africa. “This telescope, which is predominantly a locally designed and built instrument, shows the world that South Africa can compete in international research, engineering, technology and science.”

This project was undertaken in a bid to have South Africa host an even larger project, the Square Kilometer Array. Just as phase AR1 is a component that will eventually become a part of the larger MeerKAT project, MeerKAT may eventually become a component in the SKA project. Although South Africa was an ideal geographical location for the SKA project, concerns had arisen as to whether the country had the resources to undertake such a project. The significant progress made so far on the MeerKAT telescope has directly addressed those concerns.

MeerKAT was designed to assist with over 10 different research projects. The telescope will be used to test Einstein’s theory of gravitational radiation, helping us understand complex physics. Surveying neutral hydrogen gas allows us to understand the chemical makeup of the big bang. Searching for and identifying pulsars will help us understand the life cycle of a neutron star. Even once all of these research projects have been completed, the MeerKAT telescope was designed with an interface allowing for access to raw telescope data. The implications of this mean that new instrumentation and experiments can be designed using the existing hardware, saving millions of dollars in future expenditures.

meerkat satellite
A very dense black hole. [Image via SKA South Africa]

Among the 1,230 galaxies discovered, the most interesting findings include several galaxies with massive black holes at their center, one of which is located over 200 million lightyears away. The image above shows a very dense black hole and illustrates how matter is pulled into it and absorbed. The bright, dense point of light you see in the center is a result of electrons being ejected from the black hole at nearly the speed of light.

This image shows roughly 1 percent of MeerKATs total field of view. Once the full telescope is online, images will have nearly 8x the resolution. As opposed to the more traditional light telescope, a radio telescope is able to pick up radiation from a very wide spectrum. Included in this spectrum is the radiation from galaxies, nebulas, and stars. The span of the radio waves that can be measured by the MeerKAT project represents 80 percent of the frequency range that is possible to be measured from earth.

In addition to the MeerKAT specific research projects, they will also be participating in global VLBI operations. These projects utilize extra resources from many different radio telescopes to aid in the search for extraterrestrial life.

[Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images]