SKA South Africa unveils ‘First Light’ image from outer space

CD Anderson

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project, near the town of Carnarvon in the remote Northern Cape, revealed the first image of space taken using the project’s first phase of 16 fully-functioning MeerKAT receptor units.

Named ‘First Light’, the image was presented at an onsite function held on 16 July 2016.

The presentation formed part of a tour of the SKA facilities by other ministers and 11 government deputy ministers, invited by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor.

Among the dignitaries was Ebrahim Patel, minister of economic development and member of the Presidential Infrastructure Co-ordinating Commission (PICC).

Infrastructure investment is a key priority of the National Development Plan and the New Growth Path, and the SKA project is one of 18 strategic infrastructure projects identified by the PICC as a priority for national economic growth.

The aim of the tour, said Pandor, was to create project ambassadors in the government to spread the message of SKA’s ground-breaking work in the field of astro-science that aided South Africa’s reputation as a global scientific player, as well as to highlight the positive impact of the project on the people of Carnarvon.

‘First Light’

SKA’s chief scientist, Dr Fernando Camilo, unveiled the ‘First Light’ image during the ministers’ visit, beginning with some background about how radio wave technology worked and how it was evolving as SKA itself advanced.

Highlighting the differences between images taken with a conventional visual telescope – one in Chile – and a smaller radio telescope array in the United States, Camilo said the image captured by the 16-unit array – a quarter of its prospective capacity – was much clearer and lot more detailed than anything captured before. It revealed over 1 300 galaxies in a tiny corner of the universe where only 70 were known before.

A particular highlight of the image shows what is known as a Fanaroff-Riley Class 2 (FR2) object: a massive black hole in the distant universe. In the image, matter can be seen falling into the black hole and producing the bright dot at the centre. The FR2 object launches jets of powerful electrons moving at close to the speed of light, emitting radio waves that are then detected with the array. (Refer to the images in the above tweet)

Camilo called the SKA array, as it is now, operating on a quarter of its potential, a “remarkable image machine”. These latest image developments were “beautiful and far better than we could have expected”. Once the full array of 64 MeerKATs was completed, the possibilities for uncovering clearer and more noteworthy cosmic events was a very exciting prospect.

Global infrastructure for the world

In her keynote address, Pandor, a passionate advocate of SKA, noted “the dedicated work of hundreds of engineers, scientists, managers and other staff, and South African and international industrial partners, as well as the support of the government and people of South Africa for more than a decade”.

The project would turn innovation and development activities into real economic benefits for the people of the area and reputation of the country. Africa’s role in the global science community was vital and very much assured, she said. “We are building a global infrastructure for the world.”

What is SKA?

The Square Kilometre Array South Africa is a radio telescope project made up of a series of receptor dishes called MeerKATs that collect sensitive radio wave frequencies from outer space, detecting objects millions, even billions of light years away from Earth. The SKA facility then processes the huge amounts of data gathered from these radio waves to formulate images of the objects – including the birth of stars and the forming of new galaxies.

Scientists use the information and images gathered by SKA telescopes to better understand how the universe evolved and continues to change.

South Africa hosts the bulk of the SKA project, with investments by the government and private research partners totalling more than R3-billion ($205m).

Currently the South African SKA site has 16 fully-functioning MeerKAT dishes, with the full array of 64 receptors expected to be completed by the end of 2017. This will make it part of the world’s most powerful radio telescope system.

Set to be completed by 2020, the entire SKA system of 3 000 dishes in locations around the world, including in Australia, South America and the UK, will give astronomy, physics and a host of other sciences an almost limitless amount of data with which to advance human understanding of the universe.

The South African section of the project alone has more than 500 global scientific groups
in line to use the Northern Cape array for research and discovery work over the next five years, bringing in much science tourism revenue.

“What this will do is bring to South African and world astronomers the most astonishing and profoundly powerful instrument ever used before in radio astronomy,” SKA South Africa Project director Rob Adam said at the visit on Saturday.

SouthAfrica.info reporter

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