18 May 2010
South African astronomy celebrated a major milestone this month as the first four telescopes of the KAT-7 demonstrator radio telescope were linked together as an integrated system to produce Africa’s first “interferometric” image of an astronomical object.
“Interferometry” refers to a technique in which radio signals collected at the same time by a system of networked radio telescopes are processed into a single high-resolution image.
Making new science possible
In a statement last week, the Department of Science and Technology said this was a significant step, because it meant South Africa now had its own functioning radio interferometer.
“Technically, it could be handed over to astronomers who could begin to do science with it; science that was not possible in Africa before,” the department said.
The KAT-7 is a precursor to the MeerKAT, which will be one of the most powerful telescopes in the world in its own right, consisting of 80 dishes, with a high-speed data network linking the telescope site in the Karoo to a control centre in Cape Town.
The KAT-7 will serve both as an engineering test-bed and as an operational radio telescope in its own right, while the MeerKAT will be one of the largest scientific research facilities in the world, and will consolidate Africa as a major global hub for astronomy in the world.
Boost for SKA bid
The milestone is important in terms of the African bid to host what will be the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), because it demonstrates that Africans have the technical expertise to build such a complex working instrument.
“This will increase our chances of winning the SKA bid,” the statement read.
In her budget vote speech in Cape Town in April, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said that if Africa were chosen to host the SKA, “significant international funding” would flow into South Africa and its partner countries on the continent.
“If we win the bid the central location will be in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, with other parts of the array as far as 3 000km away in eight African partner countries,” she said.
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