No stopping MeerKAT
Cape Town - As South Africa waits for a decision on the country that will win the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, engineers are confident that the MeerKAT will go ahead.
"MeerKAT gets built, whether we win the SKA or not. If we win the SKA, things will change and we will have to re-plan a bit, but what we did was to align MeerKAT pretty close to the mainstream SKA thinking so that we'll be in a position to expand MeerKAT into an SKA Phase 1," MeerKAT project manager Willem Esterhuyse told News24.
The SKA will be structured in phases, beginning with 250 antennas in Phase 1, until it reaches a final total of over 3 000 linked radio telescopes that will give astronomers an unprecedented view of the night sky, going back billions of years.
A decision is expected in February, but it might be as late as April 2012.
MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) will consist of 64 linked radio dishes near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape province and will, in niche areas, be the most sensitive instrument of its kind.
"If we don't get SKA, MeerKAT still gets built; we have had confirmation of that on quite a few occasions from our steering committee and from the minister," Esterhuyse said.
Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor said that MeerKAT was a boost for astronomy in Africa.
"We will build MeerKAT, but we have an exciting initiative that we're currently trying to promote on the continent. That of building a VLBI [Very Long Baseline Interferometer] of radio satellites connected across the African continent and linking in to the VLBI network in Europe as well as the Americas," Pandor told News24.
In 2011, a design review praised the development of the MeerKAT as well as the site in the Karoo which has been designated a radio reserve by the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act of 2007.
"We've got a green light for MeerKAT. In July of last year we had our system PDR [preliminary design review]. We had an international panel of experts; they were very complimentary of our efforts so far and we're out on tender now for some of the infrastructure components," Esterhuyse said.
Tenders for the construction of more roads and a landing strip on site has been put out and the infrastructure on the site is being developed.
"We've just released a tender for the MeerKAT antenna structures; so MeerKAT is happening as we speak.
"They will break soil on infrastructure this year; the first antenna we will probably start working on site in 2013 and essentially hand it over to our system engineering side toward August of 2013," said Esterhuyse.
The project is scheduled for completion in 2016 and represents a technical challenge for the South African engineers. The design of the dishes, and most of the underlying technology, is South African innovation.
"So from the end of 2013 from an engineering side, we will be pretty much done with it and then hand over to the scientists to verify it on a scientific level," Esterhuyse said.
- Follow Duncan on Twitter