The MeerKAT precursor array. (Source: SARAO)

MeerKAT telescope gets R800m for 20 new dishes


South Africa and Germany will invest R400 million apiece for the expansion of the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Karoo.

Spearheaded by the Department of Science and Technology and operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), MeerKAT is a precursor to the larger international Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The MeerKAT is currently made up of 64 dishes, each 13.5m in diameter. However, the new R800 million funding from Germany and SA will see it get an additional 20 dishes.

This will increase the telescope’s computing requirements 10-fold.

In a statement, SARAO says the investment in the MeerKAT extension is split roughly into two equal contributions of R400 million by South Africa and Germany.

The German funding is a grant by Max Planck Gesellschaft, which gets its funding from the German federal government, and the South African funding will be provided from SARAO’s existing budget.

SARAO chief scientist Fernando Camilo says: “The extended MeerKAT will increase the raw sensitivity by roughly 50%, meaning the extended MeerKAT would have the ability to detect even fainter astronomical sources, and also to carry out surveys of the sky faster.

“In addition, with the 20 new dishes placed on distances of up to 17 kilometres from each other, the extended MeerKAT will be able to make sharper and higher-definition images of the sky.

“Therefore, much like MeerKAT has opened ‘new parameter space’ compared to previous telescopes, leading to major new discoveries, the extended MeerKAT will be able to do things that MeerKAT alone can’t.

“For instance, it’s clear the extended MeerKAT will be an even more powerful telescope to study the formation and evolution of galaxies throughout the history of the universe. In detail, the new science programmes to be carried out will ultimately be driven by the scientific community, and our colleagues in South Africa and Germany are already considering how best to use these exciting new capabilities.”

The extension of the project is expected to start in the middle of 2021, and be completed towards the end of 2022.

The SKA project is being built by an international consortium that includes Canada, China, India, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK, and will be co-hosted in SA and Australia.

It will be built in two main phases, with construction of the first phase planned to start later this year. Some elements will be operational by 2020, with full operation under way in 2025.

When completed, SKA will be 50 to 100 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope on earth and is expected to address fundamental questions about the universe, including how the first stars and galaxies were formed.