SKY’S THE LIMIT: South Africa’s KAT-7 telescope, a seven-dish array that is a precursor to the much larger MeerKAT telescope in the Karoo and the Square Kilometre Array. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

IN TECHNOLOGY, radio astronomy is still running off the success of the 1980s, says Rhodes University’s new Square Kilometre Array (SKA) research chairman, Oleg Smirnov.

The SKA will be the largest radio telescope on Earth, and will be so sensitive that it will be able to detect signals from the beginning of the universe.

It will be shared between Australia and South Africa, with the latter hosting the lion’s share. Also, South Africa has begun work on the 64-antenna MeerKAT, which will later become part of the SKA.

Prof Smirnov forms an integral part of the university’s Centre for Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technologies (RATT). "There was a technological breakthrough in the 1980s, SelfCal … (which are) techniques and software packages (used) so that radio astronomers can get an image," he says. SelfCal stands for "self-calibration".

According to Jasper Horrell, who is part of SKA South Africa’s MeerKAT science processing unit, calibration is "understanding and correcting for the effects of the instrument itself, which gets in the way of the science".

"It goes through cycles (because) then people went off and became users," Prof Smirnov says.

But the techniques from the 1980s are not adequate for the SKA, he says. "Big telescopes see more.… And there is more distortion in the data."

In the early days of the discipline, radio astronomers were engineers who did science, says Dr George Nicolson, who was the first director of the Hartbeeshoek Radio Astronomy Observatory in Gauteng.

If the instrument broke in the 1970s, then the radio astronomer had to fix it.

"There has been a separation between scientist and engineer.… Because of the data available in archives, you can do science without ever seeing a (radio astronomy) instrument," says Justin Jonas, a professor at Rhodes University, as well as associate director for science and engineering at SKA SA, and director of RATT.

"The field is in danger of not having engineer scientists to development the systems.

"That is what RATT is all about … RATT is hardware and software for the future with the SKA and MeerKAT in mind," says Prof Jonas.

Rhodes has a long history of involvement in radio astronomy, specifically on the construction of radio astronomy systems, with a number of its students becoming notable players in the field, both locally and internationally. "(RATT) is based on what we were doing in the past," Prof Jonas says.

However, RATT gives the university, and the country, a competitive advantage. "This is one of the few groups in the world doing this," he says.

"We fill the gap (between radio astronomers and radio engineers)," Prof Smirnov says.

At the moment, the RATT office — located in the department of physics and electronics — is rather bare, with only Prof Jonas and Prof Smirnov’s office, but "we’re getting a research group together", he says. "We will have two post-doctorates here, and three students for next year.

"We will scale it up to six in the next few years," he says. When asked whether there was a South African quota, Prof Jonas says that there is an "open call, and the best students will be selected.… The idea is to have a class of the best".

Although Russian by birth, Prof Smirnov spent 12 years working at Astron in the Netherlands, one of the world’s leading institutes.

When asked why he decided to come to South Africa, he says: "I came to South Africa because I was impressed. Radio astronomy is fresh here, it’s exciting and there are more opportunities."

Prof Jonas echoes this sentiment: eight people applied for three posts, he says.

"Everyone knows that South Africa is the place to be if you want to do radio astronomy."