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 HERA project, which involves the South African Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, has received a $9.5m boost that will enable scientists to peer back to the dawn of time.

The US National Science Foundation has made the funding available to the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionisation Array (HERA), which is part of SKA.

The funding will allow the HERA project to increase the number of radio dishes from 19 to 220 by 2018.

The HERA project is a collaboration by the US, SA and Britain to build a telescope capable of detecting the Epoch Of Reionisation, which in Big Bang cosmology is the period after the ‘dark ages’ when all matter in the universe was reionized.

SKA South Africa senior astronomer Dr Gianni Bernardi said very little was known about the period between 300,000 years and 1-billion years after the Big Bang, and the dishes would allow researchers to understand the formation and evolution of the very first stars and galaxies in the universe.

“There are a lot of things that we may be able to learn… [from] what were the first galaxies that were formed looked like, how massive they were. It can even lead to an even better scenario… which could tell us about the nature of dark matter,” he said.

He said the HERA project could lead to a number of discoveries, including when the first black holes formed in the universe or if giant stars ever existed when the universe was a few hundred millions years old.

Bernadi said astrophysics believed that the best way to find out more was to examine and measure neutral hydrogen gas in the universe by building sensitive radio telescopes that could detect the distribution of gas back in time.

Rob Adam, SKA SA managing director, said in a statement that the MeerKAT radio telescope, a precursor to SKA, “will study evolved galaxies in the later universe, while HERA will peer back nearer to the dawn of time when the first stars and galaxies were being formed. In this way they address complementary scientific questions”.

The HERA project is located only a few kilometres from the MeerKAT radio telescope, which began initial operations in July.

HERA dishes operate at a low radio frequency, and according to Bernardi, the increase from 19 to 220 dishes would have enough sensitivity to allow astronomers to make the first measurements of how the fraction of neutral hydrogen changed with cosmic time.

He said its growth in the future would include more dishes about 14m in diameter.

Each antenna will point in a fixed direction, as they do not have to move around and do not require expensive moving parts.

Project Engineer Kathryn Rosie, who is responsible for HERA’s construction in the Karoo, said HERA was a truly Karoo-based project because the construction materials were sourced and fabricated from within South Africa, predominantly from the Carnarvon area in the Karoo.

The project is being led by the University of California, Berkeley in collaboration with partner teams from the USA, UK, Italy and South Africa. Rhodes University, UKZN and Wits are participating.

HERA is one of a number of low frequency telescopes, including the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in Australia and the LOw Frequency ARray (Lofar) in the Netherlands that are pathfinders for SKA1-LOW to be located in Australia.