MeerKAT telescope leading innovation

2011-03-23 17:07
Cape Town - South Africa's MeerKAT project is the ideal precursor for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope bid and local engineers have developed technology to reduce the costs associated with the project.

"The MeerKAT is an instrument in its own right, even if the SKA doesn't happen," MeerKAT project manager Willem Esterhuyse told News24.

The MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) aims to build 64 radio telescopes in the Northern Cape province as the country prepares its bid to host the international SKA which will consist of approximately 3 000 instruments, capable of high resolution imaging of distant objects using the the radio spectrum.

The Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act of 2007 has designated a large area in the province as a radio reserve to prohibit any radio frequency interference which would impact on the quality of the observatory.

The MeerKAT began with the building of seven telescopes (KAT 7) as a test-bed project on the site near Carnarvon.

Systems test

"We built seven antennas and learnt a lot from that; we received our first image in April 2010 to test out the system," Esterhuyse said.

That image was obtained using four of the seven dishes on the site and engineers used to data to check that the systems, which were designed in SA, were working correctly.

Three cold receivers are installed and the remaining four should be ready by May. These receivers amplify the signal received by the antenna, without adding any radio noise which would destroy the radio waves from deep space.

"We're still doing engineering tests and toward year-end, we'll do science tests and then there'll be more images," said SA SKA project director Dr Bernie Fanaroff.

Recently, the design of the dishes was changed to be more efficient and better place South Africa's bid for the SKA in opposition to Australia.

The upgraded design will see offset dishes with an open aperture that should result in a more accurate instrument. Engineers are quite bullish about the new design.

"MeerKAT will easily detect a cellphone if you put it on the moon," said engineer Richard Lord.


One of the breakthroughs of the project was the local development of the Roach (Reconfigurable Open Architecture Computing Hardware) board.

It allows the processing of the signal in the digital back end of the instrument, but different software can be written for it.

Esterhuyse said that progress was being made in terms of human capital development. "More than 300 students have gone through the bursary programme and we've brought some in as interns," he added.

"There will be a system review by July 2011 and we have the 10MB/s line to Cape Town installed, but that will be upgraded to 10GB/s fibre". The system will be developed so that data from the observatory can be transmitted at high speed.

The project is funded by the department of science and technology.

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