Even operating at a quarter of its eventual capacity, South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope showed off its phenomenal power on Saturday, revealing 1,300 galaxies in a tiny corner of the universe where only 70 were known before.
The image released on Saturday was the first from MeerKAT, where 16 dishes were formally commissioned the same day.
MeerKAT’s full contingent of 64 receptors will be integrated next year into a multi-nation Square Kilometre Array (SKA) which is set to become the world’s most powerful radio telescope.
The images produced by MeerKAT “are far better that we could have expected,” the chief scientist of the SKA in South Africa, Fernando Camilo said at the site of the dishes near the small town of Carnarvon, 600 kilometres north of Cape Town.
This “means that this telescope as is today, only one quarter of the way down (to its full contingent) is already the best radio telescope in the southern hemisphere,” Camilo told AFP.
When fully up and running in the 2020s, the SKA will comprise 3,000 dishes scattered around several countries allow astronomers to peer deeper into space in unparallelled detail.
It will have a discovery potential 10,000 times greater than the most advanced modern instruments and will explore exploding stars, black holes, dark energy and traces of the universe’s origins some 14 billion years ago.
MeerKAT is being built in the remote and arid southwest of the Karoo region of South Africa that offers prime conditions for astronomers.
It will serve as one of the two main clusters of SKA. The other will be in Australia.
Some 200 scientists, engineers and technicians working in collaboration with industry, local and foreign universities have developed the technologies, hardware and software systems for MeerKAT.
South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor told AFP that “this the first time that an African group of countries will host global science infrastructure of this character.”
“It’s a first for us as Africa and also it’s a first for the world because the world hasn’t done this in Africa,” said the Minister. “We are building a global infrastructure for the world.”
More than 20 countries are members of the SKA, including Britain which hosts the headquarters of the project.