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Centre of the Milky Way more visible

The South African Science fraternity reached another milestone with the official launch of the MeerKAT 64-dish radio telescope on Friday (13/07) in Carnarvon.

This R3,2 billion project has been in design and construction for a decade under the Department of Science and Technology and has now begun science operations.

At the launching event, images obtained with the new telescope revealed extraordinary detail in the region surrounding the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy.

This
image shows a wealth of never before seen features and a clearer view of previously known supernova remnants star-forming regions and radio filaments.

It shows the clearest view yet of the central regions of our galaxy.

At the distance of the galactic center (located within the white area near image center), this 2 degree by 1 degree panorama corresponds to an area of approximately 1 000 light-years by 500 light-years.

The color scheme chosen to display the signals represents the brightness of the radio waves recorded by the telescope (ranging from red for faint emission to orange to yellow to white for the brightest areas).

“We wanted to show the science capabilities of this new instrument, which was built and operates by MeerKAT in the semi-arid Karoo region of the Northern Cape. The centre of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena – but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes,” said Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (Sarao).

The center of the Milky Way, 25 000 light-years away from earth and lying behind the constellation Sagittarius (the “Teapot”), is forever enshrouded by intervening clouds of gas and dust, making it invisible from earth using ordinary telescopes.

However, infrared, X-ray, and in particular, radio wavelengths penetrate the obscuring dust and open a window into this distinctive region with its unique 4 million solar mass black hole.

Prof. Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of the Northwes­tern University in Evanston, IIIinois, said that the long and narrow magnetised filaments were disco­vered in the 1980s using the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico, but their origin has remained a mystery.

However 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 solving this three-decade riddle”.

Yusef-Zadeh congratulated his South African colleagues for achieving an exceptional milestone.

“This instrument will be the envy of astronomers everywhere and will be in great demand for years to come,” he said.

It shows so many features never before seen . . . that it could provide the key to cracking the code.

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