A new window into the radio sky
The Max Planck Society participates in MeerKAT telescope project in South Africa
November 11, 2015
At the moment, the MeerKAT site about 90 kilometers outside of the South African town of Carnarvon at the North Cape, is still a construction site. But by 2017 it should be home to the new Mecca of radio astronomers. Due to the unique location in the Karoo semi-desert region, the facility is very little affected by earthly interference, and can thus make full use of its sensitivity.
Alongside visible light, radio astronomy opens a further window into the universe. But the quality of observations very much depends on the sensitivity of the telescopes. Factors such as accessibility of the regions of the sky, time and frequency resolution, or the speed of mapping the firmament also play an important role.
MeerKAT will consist of a total of 64 individual antennas, of 13.5 metres in diameter each. The dish-shaped antennas can be interferometrically combined into a single telescope and were designed by the German company Vertex. They work in a so-called offset Gregory configuration, which enables increased sensitivity due to the full available aperture of the reflector, as well as an excellent image quality and good shielding against unwanted interference from satellite or terrestrial transmitters.
The facility will be more sensitive than the largest mobile unit telescopes on the northern hemisphere of the Earth, the 100-m antenna at Effelsberg near Bonn and in Green Bank in the US state of West Virginia. In addition, the spatial resolution of MeerKAT can be compared to that of a radio telescope of eight kilometers in diameter.
Agreement signed in Berlin
The Cooperation Agreement on cooperation in MeerKAT between the Max Planck Society and the South African partners was officially concluded in Berlin on Wednesday. The ceremony was attended, among others, by the South African Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, and the President of the Max Planck Society, Martin Stratmann.
On the part of the Max Planck Society, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy are involved in the cooperation. Together with colleagues from the Universities of Manchester and Oxford, they will process the project's data. The system will consist of a front-end system for data acquisition and a backend system for processing data in high time resolution. The frequencies are in the range from 1.6 to 3.5 gigahertz (GHz). The expected recorded data rate of 5.5 terabits (1 terabit = 1012 bits) corresponds to 147 fully recorded DVDs per second.
"The MeerKAT receiver project at our institute provides a receiving system that is finely tuned to the science interests of Max Planck scientists", says Gundolf Wieching, head of the Electronics division at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy where the new receiver will be built. "This will allow us to fully exploit the potential this formidable new instrument".
Max Planck Director Michael Kramer rates the possibilities of MeerKAT very high:"We expect advancements in the area of fundamental physics with tests of theories of gravity and gravitational wave detection by means of pulsar observations”
According to Kramer, the observations include the study of dynamic changes in the radio sky - such as brief radio emission bursts at cosmological distances - sensitive molecular spectroscopy of the interstellar medium, and high resolution images of radio sources.
With MeerKAT, the future of radio astronomical observation has begun. The facility is to be integrated into the Square Kilometre Array in the middle of the next decade. The project, called "SKA" will be built at locations in South Africa and Australia and include thousands of small antennas which will have a total collecting area of one million square meters. The spatial resolution of the SKA will surpass that of the Hubble Space Telescope by up to 50 times.