It has been a decade in the making, and now the MeerKAT radio telescope has been unveiled.

LOOKING INTO THE PAST: An artist’s impression of the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape. Image: SKA

This is a major leap forward not just for South Africa but for global astronomy and our understanding of the beginnings of the universe

MeerKAT was unveiled today some 70km from the tiny town of Carnarvon and in the vast big-sky landscape of the Northern Cape where any interference to the signals is minimal.

Launched by Deputy President David Mabuza, the MeerKAT is the world’s largest radio telescope and is a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which falls under the Department of Science and Technology.

Later it will later be integrated into the SKA, which will be 50 to 100 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope on Earth.

“The SKA is expected to address fundamental questions about the universe, including how the first stars and galaxies were formed,” said spokesman Lorenzo Raynard.

MeerKAT is expected to reveal extraordinary detail in the region surrounding the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.

“We wanted to show the science capabilities of this new instrument,” said Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which built and operates MeerKAT in the semi-arid Karoo region.

“The centre of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena — but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes.”

The centre of the Milky Way is 25,000 light years away from Earth, and because it lies behind the constellation Sagittarius (the “Teapot”), it is always obscured by gas and dust, making it invisible from Earth using ordinary telescopes.

“Although it’s early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be optimised, we decided to go for it and were stunned by the results,” said Camilo.

Black hole expert Farhad Yusef-Zadeh, of Northwestern University in the US, said: “This image is remarkable.”

He said the MeerKAT “shows so many features never before seen” that it could provide the key to cracking astronomical riddles.

“It’s an exceptional achievement — congratulations to our South African colleagues. They’ve built an instrument that will be the envy of astronomers everywhere and will be in great demand for years to come.”

TANYA FARBER

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