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The awarding of the major component of the R26-billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) mega radio telescope to SA will open doors to a wealth of new knowledge and the promise of exciting new job and study opportunities.
Researchers at the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit at the University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal have been working closely with the South African SKA Project (Saskap) since its inception nearly a decade ago, and now host a node of the project’s astronomy undergraduate bursary programme that will train the next generation of South African astronomers.
The project’s postgraduate bursary programme has previously funded three doctoral and two masters students who have graduated through their cutting-edge research in astrophysics and cosmology supervised by Astrophysics and Cosmology researchers. Two doctoral students and one masters student at UKZN are working on project-funded research.
Masters student Kenda Knowles has been recruited to work with the commissioning team on data from the Karoo Array Telescope KAT-7 (a radio array comprising 7 dishes) precursor instrument.
Knowles is interested in studying the growth of galaxy clusters, the most massive objects in the universe held together by gravity, by measuring the radio waves that are given off in rare but highly energetic collisions between these objects.
UKZN researchers Dr Caroline Zunckel and Professor Kavilan Moodley are closely involved with several key Meerkat (the extension of KAT-7 to 80 radio dishes i.e “More” KAT) projects that will come online in the next few years.
Zunckel will participate in the Meerkat International Giga-Hertz Tiered Extra-galactic Exploration project that will study the growth of supermassive black holes located at the centres of active galaxies, and the Meerkat Absorption Line Survey project, that will study the build-up of stars from the reservoirs of hydrogen gas contained in galaxies. Zunckel will collaborate with the the principal investigators of the Meerkat project to train UKZN students to work on data from this project.
Moodley will play a key role in the projects named “Looking At the Distant Universe with the MeerKAT Array” (Laduma), and Pulsar Timing Array, which have been awarded the largest fractions of Meerkat observing time.
He is leading a Laduma science working group that will study the rotational motions of galaxies through the radio waves given off by the hydrogen gas that they contain.
Moodley will also lead the Pulsar science working group that will study the gravitational ripples created in the fabric of space and time only moments after the big bang.
Collaboration with Saskap will see an expansion of astrophysics and cosmology at UKZN.
Recently, three new academic positions, dedicated to research in astrophysics and cosmology, were created in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science in partnership with Saskap.
The Astrophysics and Cosmology unit has also grown its postdoctoral research programme in recent years, and will continue to recruit postdoctoral fellows in collaboration with Saskap.
Most importantly, UKZN now hosts a node of the Saskap astronomy undergraduate bursary programme that will train the next generation of South African astronomers.
In addition to generous funding from Saskap, astronomy bursars benefit from individual tutoring and mentoring through an undergraduate internship programme run by the Astrophysics and Cosmology unit.
Undergraduate bursars such as Sinenhlanhla Sikhosana and Vishalin Pillay have been excelling in their degrees and have received numerous academic awards at UKZN.
When the SKA telescope switches on in just over a decade, UKZN will be well placed, through its growing team of astronomers, to play a leading role in the SKA’s scientific and technological achievements.
Professor Andrew Kindness, dean of UKZN’s school of chemistry and physics, said that more than ever before there was a need to encourage as many youngsters as possible to follow science-orientated careers.
“The establishment of the SKA will undoubtedly open a new chapter of learning and space investigation, not only in South Africa, but in other emerging African countries.”
He said opportunities would be transformed in a number of academic disciplines, including mathematics, physics, computer science and engineering.
“If there was ever a reason for students to excel at school, the awarding of this mega telescope and the enormous international spin-off in research endeavours, should be a compelling reason to achieve,” Kindness said.
The SKA is about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope, with about 4 000 dish-shaped antennae and other hybrid receiving technologies.
Professor of Physics and Senior Research Associate at UKZN, Manfred Hellberg, said: “Historically we are a scientifically enriched nation, great enquiring minds, cutting edge empirical science.”
“We are up there with the best and we have a proactive government. So yes, it’s a very exciting prospect, not only for me, but the group of leading South African scientists.”
The telescope will be so powerful and sensitive that it will observe radio signals from the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang.
It will search for Earth-like planets and potential life elsewhere in the universe, test theories of gravity and examine the mystery of dark energy and probe the so-called “dark ages”, when the early universe was in a gaseous form before stars and galaxies were formed.
Scientists are optimistic that the SKA will allow many new discoveries about how the universe was formed and what it is made of.
The foundations for this giant step into deep space are already under way in the northern Cape, mostly uninhabited sheep country of Carnarvon and Williston, about 150km from the South African Large Telescope at Sutherland in the Karoo.
Collaborations will be made with outlying stations spread over several African countries, including Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia, Mauritius, Madagascar, Kenya and Ghana.
It will have a core of several hundred antennae and outlying stations of 30 to 40 antennae spiralling out of the core. These stations will be spread over a vast area – up to 3 000km.
The combined collecting area of all these antennae will add up to one square kilometre (= one million square metres).
Partner countries include Australia, which will host the hundreds of low-frequency antennae required for the project and which needed to be in a separate site.
Both countries precursor arrays, the ASKAP in Australia and Meerkat in the Karoo, will be incorporated into Phase 1 of the Square Kilometre Array.
* Dr Caroline Zunckel attended the then University of Natal (Pietermaritzburg) as an undergraduate in 2000, earning a BSc (Hons) in 2003.
She enrolled in the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme masters course in 2004 and completed an MSc in 2005 at the University of Cape Town. She received a PhD in Astrophysics (Cosmology) from Oxford University in 2008. She worked for 1.5 years as a postdoctoral researcher in the Astrophysics Department at Princeton University, USA, before returning to the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) as a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Mathematics.
She is now a lecturer in the School of Chemistry and Physics, and a researcher in the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU), UKZN.
* Professor Kavilan Moodley is a lecturer in the School of Mathematics, Computer Science and Statistics, and a researcher in the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit at the UKZN. His research interest is in the area of cosmology and involves confronting cosmological theories with observational data from large telescope projects.