South Africa Debuts Its Brand-New MeerKAT Super Telescope With A Glorious Image Of The Milky Way

In the early 2020s, MeerKAT will be integrated into an even bigger telescope, 50 times more powerful than Hubble.

Telescope dishes near the Karoo town of Carnarvon, South Africa.
Schalk van Zuydam / AP Images

In the early 2020s, MeerKAT will be integrated into an even bigger telescope, 50 times more powerful than Hubble.

Earlier today, South Africa unveiled its new super radio telescope, a 64-dish instrument dubbed MeerKAT.

Built by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), MeerKAT is stationed in the semi-arid Karoo region of the Northern Cape, and is part of a scientific mega-project which seeks to unravel the secrets of the universe, reports Reuters.

According to SARAO, each of MeerKAT’s 64 dishes, or antennae, is 13.5 meters wide (or a little more than 44 feet). These dishes “provide 2,000 unique antenna pairs, far more than any comparable telescope” and are designed to run on up to four cryogenic receivers, the first of which operate between frequencies of 900 MHz and 1670 MHz.

This magnificent radio telescope is destined for greatness and will eventually be integrated into an even grander telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), in the early 2020s.

Once the SKA is completed, it will boast 2,000 radio dishes set up both in South Africa and in Western Australia, particularly in the Murchison Shire. If you think this is impressive, Gizmodo notes that the SKA could end up with an additional 1,000 dishes located in other African countries.

Spread over an area of a square kilometer (0.4 square miles), the jaw-dropping SKA is expected to be 50 times more powerful than all other telescopes and will help astronomers image inaccessible areas of deep space “with unprecedented detail,” reports Phys.org.

“The telescope will be the largest of its own kind in the world — with image resolution quality exceeding the Hubble Space Telescope by a factor of 50 times,” said the deputy president of South Africa, David Mabuza.

The merger of the two telescopes is slated for sometime around 2023. Until that time, the MeerKAT radio telescope will operate independently — and is already off to a great start.

Developed with the purpose of finding answers to “some of the key science questions in modern astrophysics,” such as galaxy formation and evolution, “MeerKAT is the best in the world” to do the job, said Fernando Camilo, chief scientist at SARAO.

The 4.4-billion-rand ($330 million) telescope made its inauguration by snapping an incredible photo of the Milky Way, which offers “the clearest view yet” of the center of our galaxy, shows the SKA website.

The newly-released image captures the region surrounding Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy. Lying some 250,000 light-years from Earth and hiding behind the Sagittarius constellation, this supermassive black hole is impenetrable for ordinary telescopes, which can’t peer through the clouds of gas and dust that constantly envelop it.

Commenting on the photo, Camilo pointed out that the exercise was meant to show the world what MeerKAT’s science capabilities really are.

“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. Although it’s early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be optimized, we decided to go for it — and were stunned by the results.”

Described as “remarkable” by Farhad Yusef-Zadeh, a world-class expert on the enigmatic filamentary structures that only appear near Sagittarius A, the image showcases many known features, such as supernova remnants and star-forming regions, as well as never-before-seen elements. These include some features that could provide a basis for unlocking the mystery of the filaments, says Yusef-Zadeh, who is affiliated with Northwestern University in Illinois.