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First MeerKAT antenna and high-tech data centre launched in the Karoo

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Brussels, Belgium / Northern Cape, South Africa, 31 March 2014: The first of 64 antennas that will make up South Africa's new radio telescope - MeerKAT – were officially launched on 27 March 2014 by South Africa's Minister of Science and Technology, Mr Derek Hanekom. The Minister also officially opened the specialised MeerKAT Karoo Array Processor Building - the cutting edge data centre for the MeerKAT telescope that has been built in an underground bunker at the Karoo observatory site.

"The launch of the first MeerKAT antenna signifies South Africa's ardent commitment to the MeerKAT project and the broader SKA project. It further typifies the excellent engineering and technical capabilities in South Africa that have enabled us to deliver a project of this magnitude within projected timeframes and budget allocations," said Minister Hanekom. He added that the launch of the processor building and the associated design and development activities undertaken mark South Africa's readiness to embark on a big data programme at national level.

Standing 19.5 m tall and weighing 42 tons, the new MeerKAT antenna towers above the antennas of the nearby KAT-7 instrument. KAT-7 was completed in 2010 as an engineering prototype for MeerKAT, and is now routinely used for scientific research. MeerKAT is one of the precursors to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, and will later be incorporated into the mid-frequency component of SKA Phase 1 when that instrument is being constructed. The SKA will be the world's largest radio telescope, located in Africa and Australia, but shared by astronomers around the globe.

Until the SKA Phase 1 is completed, MeerKAT will be the most sensitive L-Band radio interferometer in the world. MeerKAT will also participate in global VLBI (very long baseline interferometry) operations with all major VLBI networks around the world operating at the MeerKAT frequencies, and add considerably to the sensitivity of the global VLBI networks.

The full MeerKAT array will consist of 64 identical receptors (antennas with receivers, digitizers and other electronics installed). Connected by 170 km of underground fibre optic cable, the 64 receptors will operate as a single, highly sensitive astronomical instrument, controlled and monitored remotely from the MeerKAT control room in Cape Town.

"Once up and running, the MeerKAT will generate enough data from the antennas to fill about four and a half million standard 4.7 GB DVDs in a day," Dr Jasper Horrell, general manager for science computing and innovation at SKA SA explains.

 

Interesting MeerKAT facts

  • Once all 64 antennas are operational, the instrument will be sensitive enough to pick up a cell phone signal from Saturn!

  • Each MeerKAT antenna will generate approximately the amount of data contained on a DVD every second.

  • Close to 5 000 m3 of concrete and more than 570 tons of steel were used to construct the 64 foundations for the MeerKAT antennas.

All of the on-site infrastructure (buildings, roads, electrical power conditioning and reticulation, aircraft landing strip, etc) has been constructed by South African companies, and the SKA SA infrastructure team based in Johannesburg manages the complex project.

SKA SA engineers and contracted manufacturing companies will now continue to produce the massive, high-precision components of the remaining MeerKAT antennas, and install the antennas in the Karoo, according to a tight timeline. By the end of 2014, the first four receptors will be standing in the Karoo. All 64 receptors will be installed by the end of 2016, with final commissioning being completed in 2017.

At least 75% of the components making up the MeerKAT antennas will be manufactured in South Africa, but several industries in SKA Organisation partner countries around the world are also making crucial contributions. The global technology collaborations bring cutting-edge know-how and many years of antenna experience to the MeerKAT project, and are designed to transfer expertise to the South African industry partners.

The science ministers recognise and appreciate the positive progress being made on the SKA projects. The First Ministerial Meeting of the SKA African Partner Countries took place on 26 March 2014 and highlighted the efforts being made through the African-European Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP) to mobilise funding, technical and strategic partnerships for the realisation of mutual tangible benefits for Africa and Europe, including scientific, economic and industrial advances, through radio astronomy cooperation.

AERAP is a stakeholder platform of industry, academia, the public sector and civil society established to define and implement radio astronomy cooperation initiatives between Africa and Europe. It provides a framework for stakeholders to define research action plans across the wide range of technological areas that will be essential for the future of radio astronomy. The overall goals of the platform are to strengthen research and innovation in Europe and Africa, improve knowledge transfer and stimulate competitiveness across both continents.

 

 

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Editor’s Note

The African-European Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP)

AERAP  is a response to the calls of the European Parliament, through the adoption of the Written Declaration 45/2011, and of the Heads of State of the African Union, through their decision “Assembly/AU/Dec.407 CXVIII”, for radio astronomy to be a priority focus area for Africa-EU cooperation. AERAP is a stakeholder forum of industry, academia and the public sector established to define and implement priorities for radio astronomy cooperation between Africa and Europe.

The overall goals of the platform are to leverage radio astronomy, advance scientific discovery, improve knowledge transfer and stimulate competitiveness across both continents. The platform will also enable effective dialogue to build a shared vision for international cooperation in radio astronomy.

Further information on AERAP: www.aerap.org 


Square Kilometre Array (SKA) 

SKA is a global science and engineering project led by the SKA Organisation, a not-for-profit company with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, UK. The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how galaxies have evolved since then, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth.

Thousands of linked radio wave receptors will be located in Southern Africa and Australia. Combining the signals from the antennas in each region will create a telescope with a collecting area equivalent to a dish with an area of about one square kilometre.

Members of the SKA Organisation are Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Republic of South Africa, Sweden and United Kingdom. India is an associate member.

For further information, please contact William Garnier, Chief Communications Officer of the SKA Organisation (w.garnier@skatelescope.org) or visit the website of the SKA Organisation: http://www.skatelescope.org  


MeerKAT 

MeerKAT is a radio telescope under construction in the Northern Cape of South Africa. It will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until the SKA is completed (expected in 2024). MeerKAT is a precursor to the SKA telescope and will be integrated into the mid-frequency component of SKA Phase.

Several European industry and academic partners contributed to the design and construction of MeerKAT. Europe’s leading radio astronomers have been offered observation time on MeerKAT as part of the MeerKAT global science projects. The first MeerKAT antenna was inaugurated in 2014 and the entire 64-dish array should be finished in 2016/2017. The KAT-7 science and engineering prototype is already operational and delivering results beyond expectations. 

Through MeerKAT, South Africa is playing a key role in design and technology developments for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), including the use of composite, one-piece reflectors, single-pixel wide-band receivers, low-cost and high-reliability cryogenic systems in addition to reconfigurable digital processing systems.

Further information on MeerKAT can be found at: www.ska.ac.za/meerkat

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