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All systems go for MeerKAT antenna

Cape Town - Complete with its own underground bunker, the newly constructed MeerKAT antenna – which was officially unveiled on Thursday – would not be out of place in a Bond movie.

But this isn’t a super-villain’s plot for world domination. Instead, the 19.5m-tall satellite dish could hold the answers to some of science’ s greatest mysteries, potentially spearheading research into cosmic magnetism, the galactic building block dark matter and the universe’s creation.

The SKA project is an international effort to build the world's largest radio telescope with a square kilometre of collecting area. Picture: SKA South Africa. Credit: SUPPLIED

It is the first of 64 identical antennas that will make up the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, about 50 times more sensitive and up to 10 000 times faster than the best radio telescopes of today.

It will be powerful enough to observe objects millions or even billions of light years away from Earth, allowing scientists to peer into the history of the universe and explore far-flung corners of the galaxy.

On Thursday, dignitaries and directors flocked to the Radio Astronomy Reserve in the Karoo – which is about 90km from the Northern Cape town of Carnarvon – a location selected for its relative remoteness, as even the slightest radio disturbance could be detrimental to the telescope’s success.

Speaking at the launch, Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said the completion of the first antenna showed that the project was on schedule and within its budget allocation.

About R22-billion is being pumped into the project by the various interested parties, which include the South African government.

For scientists from across the world, the completion of the first MeerKAT antenna is a game changer.

“With the SKA we will be able to see fuller, reach deeper and understand better. It will literally expand our horizons and give us a much clearer picture of how the universe came to be what it is today,” said University of Oxford professor Katherine Blundell.

Once it is running, data from the satellite will flow through buried optical fibres to the processing building, which is a fully-equipped bunker 5m below ground to protect the antennas from any radio frequency interference.

“The MeerKAT will generate enough data from the antennas to fill about 4.4 million standard DVDs in a day,” said Jasper Horrell, SKA’s South African general manager for science computing and innovation.

But most of this raw data will be processed on-the-fly, and archived in a library with the capacity of about 2 million DVDs. This will be used to research dark matter and the universe’s beginnings.

By the end of the year, the first four receptors will be erected in the Karoo. All 64 receptors are expected to be installed by the end of 2016, with final commissioning completed in 2017. - Cape Argus

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