Another milestone in MeerKAT construction

14 February 2014

The 64th and final foundation for the MeerKAT radio telescope was poured on Tuesday at South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA) site in the Northern Cape.

Close to 5 000 cubic metres of concrete and more than 570 tons of steel were used to construct the foundations for the MeerKAT’s 64 antennas over the last nine months.

The SKA project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, which is to be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia.

The 64-dish MeerKAT is due to come online in 2016 both as South Africa’s precursor to the SKA and as one of the most powerful telescopes in the world in its own right.

“The completion of the foundations and the soon-to-be completed first antenna represents a major milestone on building of the MeerKAT, which will become an integral part of the SKA project,” Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said in a statement issued by SKA South Africa.

“I am very pleased with the progress and the quality of the work that our scientists and engineers are delivering on this challenging assignment, and wish them well with the enormous task ahead of meeting the tight schedule in the next two years.”

Tracy Cheetham, general manager for infrastructure and site operations at SKA South Africa, said the foundations had been built to stringent specifications to ensure that the antennas would be exceptionally stable. “Even at wind gusts of up to 69 km/h, scientists must be able to point the dishes at distant celestial objects in an exact manner, and the antennas must be able to survive wind speeds of up to 144 km/h,” Cheetham said.

To meet these stability requirements, each foundation consists of eight steel-reinforced concrete piles at depths of between five and 10 metres. A square slab of concrete (5.2 metres square and 1.25 metres thick) rests on top of the piles to add further stability. The 32 “holding down” bolts are pre-assembled in a circle to form a steel ring cage, or so-called “bird’s nest”, into which the concrete is cast.

All other MeerKAT infrastructure should be complete by the end of March this year, SKA South Africa said.

“We are on the last leg now,” Cheetham said, adding that finishing touches to the Karoo Array Processing Building (KABP) and supporting power facility were under way. The KABP, a specialised underground bunker protected from radio frequency interference, will house all the data processing racks and the power and back-up equipment for the MeerKAT.

The MeerKAT is due to be commissioned in 2014/15, and to come online for science operations in 2016. It will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until the Square Kilometre Array itself is completed around 2024. Leading radio astronomy teams from around the globe having already signed up to use the instrument.

Square Kilometre Array South Africa and SAinfo reporter