SA celebrates MeerKAT launch with dramatic Milky Way black hole image

2018-07-13 09:02
Part of the ensemble of dishes forming the MeerKAT radio telescope in Carnarvon. (Mujahid Safodien, AFP)

Part of the ensemble of dishes forming the MeerKAT radio telescope in Carnarvon. (Mujahid Safodien, AFP)

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South Africa has officially unveiled its MeerKAT radio telescope and it has produced the clearest image yet of the super massive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy.

Deputy President David Mabuza officially unveiled the 64-dish radio telescope array in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape on Friday.

Astronomers showed off the best radio image yet taken of the centre of the Milky Way galaxy as a demonstration of the capability of the instrument that will eventually form part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

READ: SA's MeerKAT astronomers score massive win in discovering super magnetic star secrets

The black hole galaxy centre is about 25 000 light years away from Earth and is difficult to image because it's hidden by stellar dust and gas.

While the MeerKAT is a local project, it forms part of a larger vision to grow radio astronomy on the continent and is intended to dovetail with the mammoth SKA which will consist of about 3 000 linked radio telescopes.

"Other African partner countries will host the outer stations of the telescope during SKA Phase 2 in later years and we have signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with them to commit ourselves to grow the field of astronomy in their countries," Takalani Nemaungani, the Department of Science and Technology's chief director for the SKA and African Very Long Baseline Interferometry, told News24.

Observational first

READ: Multimillion-rand SA telescope to give astronomers new view of the night sky

Despite MeerKAT achieving some success prior to its inauguration as a scientific instrument, delivering highly-sensitive telescopes in the Karoo was not without significant challenges.

"Technically we were pushing the limits. As an example, we identified issues with firmware in commercial switches that the supplier was not aware of simply because we used the switches to full capacity (in terms of the data rates)," Willem Esterhuyse, general manager for engineering at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (Sarao) told News24.

The imaging of the galaxy centre follows on from a previous observation first for the MeerKAT - even before the instrument was officially inaugurated.

The instrument observed a rare astronomical phenomenon known as a magnetar earlier in 2018.

"Although MeerKAT isn't yet complete, it's now clearly a functioning telescope. We've been training a new generation of researchers, and soon our young scientists will be using what promises to be a remarkable discovery machine," Professor Roy Maartens, SKA SA Research chair at the University of the Western Cape said at the time.

This image, based on observations made with South

This image, based on observations made with South Africa's MeerKAT radio telescope, shows the clearest view yet of the central regions of our galaxy. (SARAO)

International researchers lauded the image quality of the MeerKAT.

"The MeerKAT image has such clarity. It shows so many features never before seen, including compact sources associated with some of the filaments, that it could provide the key to cracking the code and solve this three-decade riddle," said Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, one of the world's leading experts on the mysterious filamentary structures present near the central black hole but nowhere else in the Milky Way.

The MeerKAT is also likely to attract international astronomers because the instrument offers a view of the sky not available in the northern hemisphere.

The total cost for the MeerKAT instrument is R4.4bn, including the development of the testbed platforms and bidding for the SKA, said Esterhuyse.

MeerKAT by the numbers:

Number of telescopes


Core telescopes


Dish diameter


Reflector material

40 aluminium panels

Sub reflector


Pedestal height


Total height



42 tons

Observational elevation range

15° to 88°

Digitisers per telescope


Buried fibre cables situated on site


Number of internal sensors

150 000


1 712 million samples per second

Total cost



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