MeerKAT reaches another milestone

Four out of 64 sub-reflectors have been completed for the MeerKAT section of the Square Kilometre Array. And a new sub-reflector manufacturing plant has been opened by Stratosat Datacom outside Johannesburg to build the parts.

 Stratosat_sub_reflector_facility_1_article Alan Geldenhuys, the director of Stratosat Datacom; Prof Justin Jonas, the associate director: science and engineering at SKA (SA); Dr Phil Mjwara, the director-general in the Department of Science and Technology; Florian Schauenburg, the chief executive of Schauenburg International Group; and Dieter Kovar, the managing director of Stratosat Datacom, cut the ribbon to officially open the Stratosat sub-reflector manufacturing facility. (Image: Photowise)

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Melissa Javan

The new facility for making sub-reflectors for the MeerKAT radio telescope, in Elandsfontein, was officially opened by South African company Stratosat Datacom on 23 April, where Department of Science and Technology director-general Dr Phil Mjwara hailed it as “yet another milestone in the building of the MeerKAT radio telescope”.

It was also announced that four out of 64 sub-reflectors for the MeerKAT project had been completed. The MeerKAT is a division of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, the world’s biggest telescope that is being partly built near the remote Northern Cape town of Carnarvon. It will be able to view objects in the universe that cannot be seen yet.

Stratosat Datacom celebrated the inauguration of its facility in Elandsfontein together with the SKA, the Department of Science and Technology, General Dynamics SATCOM Technologies, Airborne International and various South African suppliers.

Stratosat Datacom, as part of the Schauenburg International Group, won the tender issued by SKA (South Africa) in 2012 to design, build and install 64 Offset Gregorian deep-space telescopes, of 13.5m, for the MeerKAT project. The contract is worth R630-million. It teamed up with General Dynamics SATCOM Technologies, a global leader in the design and building of advanced radio telescope antennas, to install the MeerKAT radio telescope antennas.

For this purpose, Stratosat Datacom opened a Panel Manufacturing Facility in Kempton Park, also east of Joburg, in November 2014. The first four antennas were completed at the SKA site at the end of March which was a major milestone.

To make the sub-reflectors based on composites, Stratosat also partnered with Airborne International, a Dutch company that is the market leader in highly specialised composite structures.

 Stratosat_sub_reflector_facility_3_article_MeerKat Another milestone in the building of the MeerKAT radio telescope was reached with the completion of the first four sub-reflectors for the project. There are still 60 to go. (Image: Square Kilometre Array)

The search for alien life

Once finished, the SKA will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, about 50 times more sensitive, and up to 10 000 faster (in terms of its survey speed) than the best radio telescopes of today. It will be powerful enough to sense radio waves from objects millions or even billions of light years away from Earth.

It will focus on addressing questions that can only be answered using a radio telescope. Scientist will use it to help them understand how the universe evolved, how stars and galaxies form and change, and what “dark matter” really is. They may even find life elsewhere in the universe.

South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope is an SKA precursor or “pathfinder” telescope. It will consist of 64 dish-shaped antennas and will be the most powerful radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. MeerKAT (and the Australian SKA Pathfinder, called ASKAP) will become part of SKA Phase 1. Dr Bernie Fanaroff, the director of SKA Africa, has explained the SKA project previously: “We want to build a big telescope to view faint objects that are very far away in the universe. We can’t build that big a dish, so we’re planning to build smaller ones. That way we can connect them and feed their signals together.”

This was called an array telescope. Plans for the project included site decision, which took place in 2012; the design phase of the telescope, between 2013 and 2017; and from 2018 to 2023 construction of phase one would take place. Construction of phase two would be done by 2030.

Remote, quiet region

SKA phase one sites would be in remote areas of Northern Cape of South Africa and in Australia – they need to be as far away from noise interference as possible. “In South Africa, we will have 133 dishes for SKA phase one, plus the 64 dishes of the MeerKAT project,” Fanaroff said. “The first phase of the SKA is worth a capital investment of €650-million (R8.5-billion).”

 Stratosat_sub_reflector_facility_2_article Guests at the opening of the sub-reflector manufacturing facility learn about the materials that are used to make the world-class MeerKAT telescope. (Image: Photowise)

Guests at the inauguration of the Sub-reflector Manufacturing Facility last week included representatives from General Dynamics Satcom Technologies, Airborne International and various South African suppliers. Florian Schauenburg, the chief executive of Schauenburg congratulated the team on a job well done. “We met the deadline and it was a very tight one!”

The group planned “to upscale Stratosat Datacom” and grow the business in Africa. “I’d like to see activities grow here, and that we should turn this place into a hub of skill labour.”

Mjwara said the celebration marked another milestone in building the MeerKAT facility. “We want to demonstrate to the world that we are capable of building a world-class telescope. We are proud and humbled that we can host the largest share of the SKA.”

MeerKAT was an example of what South Africa could and had already achieved with the government and the private sector working together.

During a tour of the facility, guests were shown the different materials used to make the sub-reflectors. These include glass fibre and aluminium veil.

Stratosat’s contribution to MeerKAT is scheduled to be finished within 12 months. The sub-reflector is one of five facilities in the MeerKAT project; the others include the circuit board and the panels.

Watch why the MeerKAT will become the world’s most powerful telescope: