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Megascience in Africa

Date Released: Wed, 29 August 2012 14:59 +0200

The SARChI SKA Chair in Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technologies at Rhodes University

At the forefront is the first Rhodes-based SARChI SKA Chair radio astronomer, Professor Oleg Smirnov, who has dominated the international development of novel software for radio astronomy over several years.

Inspired by the global significance of the R26-billionSKA radio telescope project, Prof Smirnov said: “Megascience is coming to Africa! For every future scientist using the SKA, there will be dozens of highly-trained engineers and technicians who will have been involved in building the SKA and who will then feed these skills into the high-tech economy.”

Prior to taking up the SKA Chair at Rhodes, Prof Smirnov served at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) from 1999, where he became a primary developer of the MeqTrees systems for calibration of radio interferometers (astronomical instruments that combine multiple radio telescopes into a single system). His training was in mathematics at the Moscow State University where he did his PhD.

“Quite simply he is one of the most outstanding radio interferometrists in the world and without a doubt the most exciting young talent in the area of the analysis of radio astronomy data,” said Dr Paul Alexander of the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge.

Other key players in the SKA project who deserve the highest credit for their input and leadership are Rhodes University honorary doctorate and SKA SA Project Director, Dr Bernie Fanaroff and Professor Justin Jonas - the SKA Chief Scientist and the Director of the Centre for Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technologies (RATT) in the Department of Physics and Electronics at Rhodes where the SKA Chair is based. Prof Jonas will be working closely with Prof Smirnov.

Critical research innovation and focus: The SKA Chair will develop algorithms and techniques for the MeerKAT and SKA projects, bringing inestimable value to these projects, to the scholarly environment at Rhodes and to the knowledge economy of the world.

The research focus of the SKA Chair will be in the area of radio astronomy instrumentation, specialising in techniques and technologies needed to build the next-generation of radio astronomy telescopes, and to make possible the science that these telescopes will enable. It encompasses electronics, algorithms and computing for radio astronomy data processing, building on the existing areas of expertise at Rhodes.

Summarising the SKA Chair’s research programme, Prof Smirnov said: “The focus of the proposed research is on radio astronomy calibration, imaging, data analysis algorithms, software and techniques urgently required by the next generation of radio telescopes and by the science they are designed to deliver. This area is currently undergoing very rapid development, driven on the one hand by recent theoretical breakthroughs in our mathematical understanding of the processes and error mechanisms underlying our observations, and, on the other, by the increased demands and novel designs of new radio observatories.”

Picture by Sophie Smith

Caption: Rhodes-based SARChI SKA Chair radio astronomer, Professor Oleg Smirnov