Rhodes University role players help launch world’s biggest and most powerful radio telescope

Rhodes University role players help launch world’s biggest and most powerful radio telescope
Rhodes University role players help launch world’s biggest and most powerful radio telescope

Several Rhodes University students, staff and alumni, under the directorship of Physics and Electronics Professor Justin Jonas, are involved in the MeerKAT project, which officially launched on 13 July 2018 in the Northern Cape.

MeerKAT is the precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa project, of which Prof Jonas is the Chief Technologist. Quite a number of the project scientists involved in the SKA are connected to Rhodes University, such as alumnus Dr Adrian Tiplady, and current Head of the Mathematics Department, Dr Denis Pollney.

“We started off with small prototyping ambitions that turned into a huge project. The SKA project itself started unofficially in the 1990s. Initially, it was to bid for the SKA site, then to build the SKA precursor, as a prototype for the SKA. This idea evolved up to the point where MeerKAT became a real project,” explained Prof Jonas.

The 13 July launch was attended by a large South African political representation, several African partner countries, and many previous ministers of science and technology, who had been exemplary supporters of the project since the beginning.

The radio images showcased at the launch are the highest-definition images ever captured of the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. “They were quite literally the very first test observations captured by the MeerKAT telescope,” Prof Jonas said.

Prof Jonas and his team have been pleasantly surprised by the data captured by the MeerKAT thus far. “The results have been better than we expected. Although our design was already twice as good as the original specifications we were given, at the same cost, we were still apprehensive about the results. However, now we can confirm that the MeerKAT is definitively the most powerful telescope of its kind, and that it’s not just ‘working’, but working exceptionally well.”

Origins and unknowns

The SKA is linked to a science case regarding the origins and the unknowns of our universe. “The aim of SKA, and therefore MeerKAT, is to study the origins and evolution of objects in the universe, particularly galaxies. It will address the question of how the different galaxies changed during their lifetimes and look at our galaxy within that context. It also tests general relativity using pulsars, so we can ascertain whether Einstein’s relativity theory is, in fact, correct,” explained Prof Jonas.

Testing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity requires both physics and mathematics, hence the involvement of Rhodes University’s own Head of Mathematics, Dr Pollney. MeerKAT’s success is based on the strength of Rhodes University’s legacy of excellence in radio astronomy, Physics, Electronics, Computing and Mathematics.

According to Prof Jonas, Rhodes University has made a significant contribution to the development of MeerKAT. “I don't think anybody would deny that if it hadn't been for the legacy the radio astronomy group at Rhodes, the project would have really struggled to get off the ground, and would not be at the point where it is now,” he said.

“We have had a radio astronomy group at Rhodes University since the 1950s, and because of the international standing of this group, I was given the task of initiating the SKA project to South Africa. This led to us envisioning the MeerKAT, of which I was appointed Technical Lead. I needed to find people who could help make this happen. Since we had not built anything like this in South Africa before, I approached several Rhodes alumni who were in industry and other universities and fortunately, they accepted and their involvement drove the growth of the project. That’s when my students got involved and currently, many of the top positions in the MeerKAT project, working as part of what we call the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), are Rhodes University alumni.”

Rhodes University formed the Centre for Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technologies (RATT), which applied for an SKA research chair, and in 2012 was successful in attracting Prof Oleg Smirnov, who is one of the top people in radio astronomy – specifically in the processing of radio astronomy data. “Since MeerKAT produces such huge amounts of data, there has been an enormous growth in research into data transport, processing and storage. The group is made up of master students, PhD students, postdoctoral students, as well as Visiting Professors from international universities, particularly Oxford University,” Prof Jonas explained.

When the research group started taking data from the MeerKAT telescope a few months ago, it was sent to the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) in Cape Town, but the only place that had the computer equipment and expertise to process MeerKAT’s data was Rhodes University.

“So the data was then shipped to the RATT servers hosted by the Rhodes IT Division, so that one of our Visiting Professors, Ian Heywood, who was at Oxford University at the time, could log in to the RATT servers and process the data,” said Prof Jonas.

One of the predictions is that the MeerKAT and subsequently, the SKA, will produce more data than the whole internet put together. “This may or may not be true, but that doesn’t make it any less overwhelming,” Prof Jonas explained.

Global and beyond

It is largely thanks to this project, Prof Jonas said, that Rhodes University is now producing radio astronomers of an international calibre. “Now that the basis of the SKA project is in place, I’m hoping Rhodes University will be able to capitalise on it, since the easiest way for astronomers to get access to the telescope is through South African universities. As such, there will be a large number of international astronomers passing through South Africa, and Grahamstown in particular, to get access to the MeerKAT which, being an African project, will involve South African and African students.”

International astronomers have already scheduled time over the next five years to use MeerKAT to study key questions about the Universe and fundamental Physics. “We have large international science teams that are waiting to use MeerKAT and in some cases, are already using it to help us debug it and get it working optimally,” Prof Jonas explained.

Since MeerKAT concerns itself with discovery, it will soon incorporate specialist equipment provided by colleagues in the USA that will search for signals from extraterrestrial civilisations elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy.

Towards the end of last year, the project team erected MeerKAT’s 64th antenna, which have all been fully-functional since the end of May. A hundred and thirty-three dish antennas still need to be constructed to complete phase 1 of the SKA, and this extension will start in about 5 years’ time.

“Telescopes are discovery machines. You’ve got your ‘known knowns’ science cases, but there are the ‘unknown unknowns’,” explained Prof Jonas. “Every time you build something that's bigger and better with more capabilities you inevitably end up making new discoveries.”

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