Huge job underpins South Africa’s big eye on the sky

2013-08-19 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Throwing foundations for the biggest telescope dishes in the world isn’t like building a house.

The mammoth task of building the foundations for the 64 dish antennas that make up the MeerKat telescope has begun and will take the next nine months.

MeerKat will be the world’s biggest radio telecope for several years, until work begins on the even bigger Square Kilometre Array (SKA) facility.

Each foundation will contain 78 m³ of concrete and nine tons of steel.

“To design and build a foundation for a highly technical telescope is complex, because it has to comply with a series of standards,” said Tracey Cheetham, infrastructure manager of SKA South Africa.

The foundation has to support an antenna 13,5 metres wide and 19 metres high. The structure has to withstand winds of up to 69 km/h and earth lightning bolts to protect the equipment from damage.

Each foundation consists of eight steel-reinforced concrete pilings sunk five to 10 metres deep according to ground conditions. On top rests a concrete slab — 5,2 m by 5,2 m, and 1,25 metres thick. On this, 32 giant bolts placed in a circle form a so-called “bird’s nest”, filled with concrete.

Cheetham said tests will be done on the first foundation to ensure that it complies with all necessary standards.

“It has to be done absolutely perfectly, to support the science to be performed with the instrument.”

The foundations are being built in concert with Brink & Health Civils.

The configuration of the MeerKat array has been determined and laid out using yellow and black kerbstones. This is one of the most critical elements of the telescope, the antennae are not built randomly but according to a very specific grid pattern so they form one unit to look into space.

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