MeerKAT – The World’s Largest Radio Telescope

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Besides the vast vegetation in Karoo, the desert in South Africa provides suitable conditions for the biggest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern African Telescope (SALT). SALT is one of the few largest optical telescopes in the world and has a hexagonal primary mirror array 11 metre across, comprising 91 individual 1m hexagonal mirrors. Situated at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) field station, SALT has been in full science operation for six years.

Other than Africa’s Giant Eye on the Universe, SALT, Karoo is home to SKA (Square Kilometre Array). The SKA is an international initiative building the world’s largest radio telescope with one million square metres (square kilometre) of collecting area. The size of SKA highlights the progress in research and development for the infrastructure as well as engineering required to build the radio telescope.

It is predicted that the SKA will enhance science and encourage new discoveries once in use. With thousands of radio telescopes arranged into three formations, astronomers will view the sky with extraordinary detail, thanks to the perfect radio quiet backdrop in the area with allows high to medium frequency arrays which are crucial for the SKA telescope. The sky will now be surveyed a thousand times faster than any system currently existing.

South Africa and eight more neighbouring countries will host the ground-breaking SKA in Africa, namely Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius, Kenya, Madagascar, and Ghana. The telescopes in these countries will contribute to the network which will provide the world’s most advanced radio astronomy array.
Unlike the image resolution quality of the Hubble Space Telescope, the SKA telescope’s image resolution quality is fifty times better! The SKA will have the ability to image larger scales of the sky and with the other telescopes being built, like the KAT7 telescope array, SKA will augment and complement the lead way in scientific discovery.

Since 2005, the African SKA Human Capital Development Programme has awarded close to 600 grants (2014) for studies in astronomy and engineering from undergraduate to post-doctoral level, while also investing in training programmes for technicians. Astronomy courses are being taught as a result of the SKA Africa project in Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius (which has had a radio telescope for many years) and are soon to start in other countries.

The SKA Organisation, with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, UK, was established in December 2011 as a not-for-profit company in order to formalise relationships between the international partners and to centralise the leadership of the project. Eleven countries are currently members of the SKA Organisation – Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India (associate member), Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.