The highly esteemed Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) has conferred Group Achievement Award to the MeerKAT team “for a series of spectacular observations in radio astronomy, the highlight being the images of the Galactic Centre region and the spectacular radio bubbles”. The MeerKAT is a radio telescope consisting of 64 antennas in the Northern Cape region of South Africa.
According to the RAS, the MeerKAT team was also recognised for supporting the development of science and technology including stress-tested technology for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), considered to be the super sensitive international radio telescope that is currently under construction.
Technical and scientific achievement
The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), under whose management the MeerKAT project falls, expressed gratitude to the RAS for recognising the technical and scientific achievement associated with the award. The MeerKAT team comprises institutions from South Africa, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, the USA, France, Australia and Germany with the University of Manchester being a leading contributor to its success. According to the SARAO’s statement, the MeerKAT project derived from the aspiration to have a South African SKA precursor telescope that would be a powerful instrument in its own right. This award is accepted with pride because it confirms the successful rendition of this aspiration into physical reality on African soil, it said.
The MeerKAT project took more than a decade of development and four years of operations, and within a very short space of time it made phenomenal advances within the radio astronomy field. Some of the most memorable breakthrough observations include MeerKAT images of the Galactic Centre region which revealed for the first time the large-scale radio bubbles and the evidence of a common origin for these bubbles.
In addition, MeerKAT has uncovered:
- one of the slowest radio-emitting neutron stars known,
- revealed a huge population of pulsars in globular clusters, and
- found many interesting fast radio bursts.
According to experts, the million pulses detected from a thousand pulsars reveal significant new detail on the way in which these extreme objects shine. For cosmological studies it has been used to measure the density of neutral hydrogen at billions of light years’ distance, employing a relatively novel technique known as intensity mapping, they noted.
Training new generation of scientists
The MeerKAT project is also recognised for its support for an intensive programme of human capital development in Africa as well as helping to train the next cohort of young radio astronomers. To date more than 1,000 scholarships have been awarded to students pursuing STEMi fields in South Africa and the broader African continent. Many of the recipients of this program are now emerging researchers and lead authors on MeerKAT publications.
The SARAO said the greater MeerKAT team extends beyond it, as indicated by the diversity of institutions recognized through the award. “Colleagues and partner institutions from around the world have expressed their confidence in MeerKAT by providing instrumentation, software and know-how to enhance the telescope capabilities, and in turn the scientific exploitation of the telescope capabilities has involved collegial international partnerships,” said the radio astronomy agency.
Recent previous winners of the award include:
- The EAGLE simulations Team (2022)
- The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Team (2021)
- The Astropy Project Team (2020); The Galaxy Zoo Team (2019)
- The Planck Team (2018) and
- The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Team (2017).
From MeerKAT to SKA-Mid
“Looking to the future, the success of MeerKAT demonstrates that the scientific and technological prerequisites for the SKA telescope in South Africa (known as SKA-Mid) are in place. We are excited by the scientific opportunities and discoveries that will derive from the progression from MeerKAT to SKA-Mid, via the MeerKAT extension project currently underway,” said SARAO.
The SARAO is a subsidiary of the National Research Foundation and it is responsible for managing all radio astronomy initiatives and facilities in South Africa. These include the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Karoo, and the geodesy and VLBI activities at the HartRAO facility. It also co-ordinates the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) for the eight SKA partner countries in Africa including South Africa’s contribution to the infrastructure and engineering planning for the Square Kilometre Array Radio telescope.