SKA design changed to boost bid

2011-02-10 12:26
An impression of what the final design will look like. (Picture provided)

An impression of what the final design will look like. (Picture provided)

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Cape Town - South Africa's bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope has been given a boost as the engineers on the project have begun fine-tuning the design.

The process to host the SKA is a "build and learn" project where South African engineers have built the KAT 7 (Karoo Array Telescope) as a test bed radio astronomy instrument.

This is a precursor to the MeerKAT which will consist of connected telescopes using the science of interferometry, where several telescopes observe a single body and the data is combined to give a more accurate picture.

"The original KAT was meant to be 20 telescopes, but it wouldn't be a serious science instrument," project manager Willem Esterhuyse told News24.

MeerKAT though, which will consists of 64 connected telescopes, has the potential to deliver as a reliable scientific instrument. The SKA project has already received proposals from astronomers wanting to use the MeerKAT for study.

Difficult exercise

"In March 2010 we received some proposals for the MeerKAT. In niche areas it [MeerKAT] would be the most sensitive in the world," said Esterhuyse.

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.

Esterhuyse acknowledged that building the MeerKAT was a difficult exercise and indicated that once the project got up to speed, sub-contractors would have to move into high gear to deliver the dishes assembled on site near Carnavon in the Northern Cape province.

Some challenges include development of the amplifier which has to increase the signal strength from the telescopes without adding noise, rendering the image useless.

SA is competing with Australia to host the SKA and local experts are convinced that SA's bid will attract the nod.

"When we first participated in the SKA nobody took us seriously because it was always assumed it would go to Australia. But we've been able to change perceptions with our KAT 7," SA SKA project director Dr Bernie Fanaroff recently told News24.

The telescopes will also spur the growth of science and human capital development in the country as it demanded more and highly skilled individuals to develop and manage the project, due to be finished by 2016.


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