22 October 2010
It will still be four years in the making, but astronomers from around the world are already queuing up to use South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope for projects ranging from tests of Einstein’s theory of relativity to studies of the nature of the early universe.
Precursor to the SKA
South Africa is building the Karoo Array Telescope, or MeerKAT, as part of its bid to host the €1.5-billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a radio imaging telescope massively bigger than any such instrument ever built.
Regardless of whether South Africa wins the SKA bid, however, the MeerKAT will be a powerful scientific instrument in its own right.
A SKA precursor telescope, it will comprise 80 dishes, each 13.5 metres in diameter. It will be built in a radio astronomy reserve near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, where it is due to be commissioned in 2014/15 as the most sensitive radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.
An engineering test bed of seven dishes, called the KAT-7, is already complete.
43 000 hours of observation time allocated
SKA South Africa announced recently that more than 43 000 hours of observation time had been allocated to radio astronomers from Africa and around the world to do research using the MeerKAT telescope.
Following an October 2009 invitation for applications for telescope time to perform large survey projects, 21 proposals involving more than 500 astronomers from around the world – including 59 from Africa – were received.
A committee made up of local and international experts rated the proposals on the basis of their scientific merit, technical feasibility, the resources each group was prepared to bring to the project, and the extent to which the MeerKAT had a unique role to play in the proposed projects.
Putting Einstein’s theory to the test
Nearly 8 000 hours of observing time were allocated to a proposal to test Einstein’s theory of relativity and investigate the physics of enigmatic neutron stars as part of a radio pulsar timing survey.
In addition, 5 000 hours will be dedicated jointly to two proposals requiring an ultra-deep survey of neutral hydrogen gas in the early universe.
The objectives of these studies coincide with those of the first phase of the SKA telescope itself, confirming the MeerKAT’s status as a SKA precursor instrument.
The teams who have submitted the successful proposals will be invited to work with the MeerKAT team throughout the design phase of the telescope, and to become involved in the project’s human capacity building programme.