Big cash boost for Karoo astronomy

Cape Town - Radio astronomy in Karoo is set for a boost with a substantial capital injection.

The Hydrogen Epoch of Reionisation Array (Hera) will be granted a cash injection of $9.5m to boost its 19 radio dishes to 220 by 2018.

Hera is located in the same Radio Astronomy Advantage Area in the Northern Cape Karoo as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) which will examine the early formation of the universe.

Unlike its sophisticated cousin, Hera will allow astronomers to detect the key signatures of early stars and galaxies in the universe.

“Hera is a truly Karoo-based instrument. Construction materials are sourced and fabricated from within South Africa - predominantly from the Carnarvon area,” said Project Engineer Kathryn Rosie.

Business benefit

Local small businesses are benefiting from the construction of the instrument.

“Because the bulk materials of construction are light industry materials such as wood and PVC pipe, there is opportunity for local businesses, which don't necessarily have a ‘high technology’ customer base, to be a part of this awesome science instrument,” Rosie added.

Hera will give astronomers a glimpse into when stars and galaxies formed in the early universe.

Hera under construction. (Danny Jacobs)

"The universe was formed in a Hot Big Bang of particles and radiation 14 billion years ago, but soon cooled down and was dark for hundreds of millions of years, before any stars formed. Nobody yet knows when these stars formed,” said SKA South Africa Chief Scientist, Dr Fernando Camilo.

“Today's announcement increases the chances that signs of the first stars and galaxies ever to be created will soon be detected - in South Africa's Northern Cape."

Unlike the SKA, the Hera has no moving parts, lowering the cost of the instrument.

The science project has also given opportunity to young SKA interns to gain valuable experience working on the telescopes.

‘Dawn of time’

“Two SKA South Africa interns who were part of the fibre-training programme in 2015, are included in the team of four. They have rapidly developed into very capable Hera builders who can hold their own with everything from land survey equipment, to general construction and the maintenance of the front-end signal chain of a radio telescope,” said Rosie.

Constructing Hera in the dedicated area validates the decision to situate the precursor MeerKAT and SKA in the Northern Cape.

The University of California, Berkeley, leads the Hera project in collaboration with South African institutions including Rhodes University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the University of the Western Cape, the University of Witwatersrand and SKA South Africa.

“Among other investigations, MeerKAT will study evolved galaxies in the later universe, while Hera will peer back nearer to the dawn of time, when the first stars and galaxies were being formed. In this way they address complementary scientific questions," said Dr Rob Adam, SKA South Africa Managing Director.

WATCH this video on how a radio telescope works:

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