News | March 28, 2014

First Antenna Launched On Precursor To World's Largest Telescope


British technologies at the heart of the world’s largest radio telescope and British scientists will be amongst the first in line to use it in 2015.

The first of 64 antennas that will make up South Africa’s radio telescope precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), MeerKAT, has been officially launched by South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology today (27 March 2014).

MeerKAT has significant UK involvement including a company that is providing technology for the radio receivers that will keep the extremely sensitive data collected at the right temperature. In addition astronomers and researchers from a number of UK universities are not only designing the data analysis tools for the project but they will also be working on understanding the survey data once the project is operational. Once complete SKA will be the World’s largest radio telescope array and the MeerKAT project is a key step to ensuring the success of the project.

Commenting from the SKA core site in South Africa, Oxford Cryosystems Managing Director Richard Glazer said: “We are honoured to be a part of this international project. There are a number of member countries and organisations involved in designing, developing and building MeerKAT, and it is a significant development opportunity for Oxford Cryosystems, with many of our cryocoolers required during the first phase alone.

“When completed, the SKA will use thousands of radio telescope dishes like the antenna launched today, enabling astronomers to survey the entire sky in unprecedented detail and thousands of times faster than any system currently in existence.”

Amongst the UK universities taking part in this international collaboration, The University of Manchester is involved with several of the surveys which MeerKAT will be doing.

Professor Albert Zijlstra, Professor in Astrophysics at the University of Manchester and Director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics said: “MeerKAT is an exciting new telescope, where we are leading the search for new pulsars. We are also part of the survey of the Milky Way and a survey of nearby galaxies.”

Dr Benjamin Stappers also of the University of Manchester is Co-Principal Investigator of TRAPUM, one of the MeerKAT legacy science projects. TRAPUM aims to find and investigate new and exotic pulsars. He added: “The SKA will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, stretching data analysis and science technologies to their limits.”

The full MeerKAT array will consist of 64 identical receptors (antennas with receivers, digitizers and other electronics installed) and will be located in the semi-desert Karoo region of South Africa. Connected by 170 km of underground fibre optic cable, the 64 receptors will operate as a single, highly sensitive astronomical instrument, controlled and monitored remotely from the MeerKAT control room in Cape Town.

By the end of 2014, the first four receptors will be standing in the Karoo. All 64 receptors will be installed by the end of 2016, with final commissioning being completed in 2017.

MeerKAT and MeerKAT science


Oxford Cryosystems and its role in the SKA project

Each of the thousands of radio telescope dishes in South Africa will need to be fitted with at least one detector or Low Noise Amplifier (LNA) with the capacity to take up to four LNAs. Each LNA is designed to collect the astronomical radio signals. Due to the sensitivity of the data collected by the LNAs being used, each one needs to be cooled down to 15K or -258°C.

The LNA to be used is being designed and built by a company called EMSS in South Africa. EMSS is working closely with the ‘Dish Consortium’ to build the most cost effective solution. In turn, Oxford Cryosystems has been working with EMSS to incorporate one of its cryocoolers into the LNA design.

Phase 1 will involve the construction of an array of 254 dishes and up to just over a thousand cryocoolers.

On completion of the construction of Phase 2 of the SKA, the entire project will contain several thousand dishes each containing up to four LNAs – potentially up to 12,000 cryocoolers.

Cool MeerKAT facts

  • Once all 64 antennas are operational, the instrument will be sensitive enough to pick up a cell phone signal from Saturn!
  • Each MeerKAT antenna will generate approximately the amount of data contained on a DVD every second.
  • Close to 5 000 m3 of concrete and more than 570 tons of steel were used to construct the 64 foundations for the MeerKAT antennas.

Why MeerKAT?

The telescope was originally known as the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) that would consist of 20 receptors. When the South African government increased the budget to allow the building of 64 receptors, the team re-named it "MeerKAT" - i.e. "more of KAT". The MeerKAT (scientific name Suricata suricatta) is also a much-beloved small mammal that lives in the Karoo region. 

SOURCE: Science and Technology Facilities Council