A Square Kilometre Array Meerkat antenna is transported to the international project site in the Karoo desert. Picture: SKA SA
A Square Kilometre Array Meerkat antenna is transported to the international project site in the Karoo desert. Picture: SKA SA

THE MeerKAT radio telescope has discovered 1,300 galaxies in a tiny sliver of the universe where only 70 were known before.

The telescope‚ under construction in the Karoo and operating at only a quarter of its capacity‚ is already producing powerful images that are "far better than we could have expected"‚ says Fernando Camilo‚ SA’s chief scientist for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor released the "First Light image" on Saturday‚ when 16 of a planned total of 64 radio telescope dishes were commissioned.

MeerKAT is a precursor to the SKA‚ an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope — 100 times more sensitive than any current radio telescope. Scientists will use it to explore how stars and galaxies are formed and how the universe evolved.

Radio telescopes collect radio waves from outer space that are then processed by computers‚ producing images of the universe.

"SA has already demonstrated its excellent science and engineering skills by designing and building MeerKAT. This telescope‚ which is predominantly a locally designed and built instrument‚ shows the world that SA can compete in international research‚ engineering‚ technology and science‚" said Pandor.

In a small patch of sky covering less than 0.01% of the entire celestial sphere‚ the MeerKAT First Light image shows more than 1,300 galaxies in the distant Universe‚ compared with 70 known in this location before MeerKAT.

"Based on the results being shown today‚ we are confident that after all 64 dishes are in place‚ MeerKAT will be the world’s leading telescope of its kind until the advent of SKA‚" said Prof Justin Jonas‚ SKA SA chief technologist.

MeerKAT will eventually consist of 64 receptors‚ each comprising a 13.5m-diameter dish antenna‚ cryogenic coolers‚ receivers‚ digitiser‚ and other electronics. The radio telescope is being built in stages but can explore space as parts of the array are commissioned.

Rob Adam‚ project director of SKA SA, said: "The launch of MeerKAT AR1 and its first results is a significant milestone for SA. Through MeerKAT‚ SA is playing a key role in the design and development of technology for the SKA.

"The South African team of more than 200 young scientists‚ engineers and technicians‚ in collaboration with industry‚ local and foreign universities and institutions‚ has developed the technologies and systems for MeerKAT.

"These include cutting-edge telescope antennas and receivers‚ signal processing‚ timing‚ telescope management‚ computing and data storage systems‚ and algorithms for data processing."

TMG Digital