Skilled UKZN students shooting for the stars
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It may sound like something out of the Big Bang Theory, but these experts are hopeful that the multimillion-rand project will reap real rewards.
The project is also set to benefit Durban suppliers who could supply goods and services for the project.
Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi- Ngubane officially launched the Hydrogen Intensity and Real Time Analysis experiment (Hirax) telescope that’s being put together by UKZN and its partners.
To be located at the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa core site in the Karoo, the telescope will have important synergies with the 64-dish MeerKAT, the country’s precursor to SKA, which is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope.
Hirax will be a compact radio telescope array of 1024 6m dishes, and in the four years that it will operate it is expected to deliver key data on the characteristics of “dark matter”, and the causes of a phenomenon known as fast radio bursts in the universe when it scans a third of the sky.
“We are in the process of building the telescopes, with the completion of the 1024 dishes expected in 2021,” said Professor Kavilan Moodley, of UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit.
Eight dish prototypes have been installed at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, just outside Johannesburg, and this will be upgraded to 128 telescopes by the end of next year at the Karoo site.
The phased approach for building the telescopes, said Moodley, was to allow for testing of the equipment.
“There are technical challenges involved in a project of this nature, and we have to build and test,” he said.
UKZN is managing the R70million project, with more than a dozen experts at the university, including postgraduate students, postdoctorate fellows, undergraduate students and academic staff involved, and the skills required cover everything from astronomy, instrumentation, physics, astrophysics, mathematics and statistics to mechanical and electrical engineering.
Once the data is collected and analysed, the team will interpret it.
Local suppliers, said Moodley, would benefit, because the team aims to ensure that much of the work will be done locally.
There are several aims of the project, said Moodley, but the main goal was to understand “dark energy”.
“What scientists found is that the expansion of the universe is speeding up.
“What we don’t know is, what dark energy is made of?
“It’s very unusual in nature and makes up 70% of energy in the universe. Dark energy causes the expansion to speed up. We will be using what we call a cosmic ruler and hydrogen gas to track how dark energy changes.
“We will also be looking for fast radio bursts, which last a thousandth of a second. These are very brief and very bright,” he said.
The systems are so advanced that the data collected by the antenna and transferred to a computer in one second equates roughly to the amount of data an average home computer uses in a month.
Kabelo Kesebonye, a Master’s student in applied mathematics, said he was working on the instrumentation of the antenna that receives the signal from space.
“I am very excited to work on this project as it’s a dream come true. The universe is fascinating.
“My function is to ensure the equipment works properly and ensure an end-to-end set-up of equipment. We can’t get anything wrong,” he said.
Professor Cynthia Chiang, who is from McGill University in Canada, and working on the Hirax project, said the project would stimulate people’s interest in the universe ahead of the SKA project.
“The radio frequencies will be captured in the antenna and after being converted in our systems will eventually end up as data on the computer.
“We will be able to analyse it and find answers to some of the questions about the universe,” she said.THE INDEPENDENT ON SATURDAY