Following an intensive and rigorous review process involving international experts, the National Research Foundation (NRF) has approved funding to the tune of R35 million for the Hydrogen Intensity and Real-time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX).
The project will be built as a guest instrument on the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (SARAO) site in the Karoo, according to department of science and technology (DST).
It said the new equipment will bolster the country’s ability to perform cutting-edge astronomy research in alignment with the Grand Challenge Astronomy National Strategy. Developed in 2008 by the DST, the strategy identifies key strategic areas in which government can intervene through the science department. It seeks to provide a blueprint and help to guide the country to transition from a “resource-based economy towards a knowledge-based economy”.
According to the DST, this investment in partnership with the NRF will provide funding for the telescope dishes, feeds, radio frequency over fibre system, and some back-end hardware. It said this represents a significant investment in the overall HIRAX project. This state-of-the-art telescope, added the DST, will provide large astronomy data sets to the project’s consortium members, international partners, and project collaborators.
“This is a major milestone for HIRAX, a locally led experiment that holds the potential to solve some of the most challenging and interesting problems in cosmology and astrophysics today,” said Professor Amanda Weltman, of the University of Cape Town department of mathematics, who is part of the project.
South Africa, together with Australia, is the current host of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), believed to be the largest radio telescope in the world. HIRAX will provide training and skills development in anticipation of the SKA era while addressing key questions in the fields of dark energy, fast radio bursts, and pulsar science.
The DST further indicated that the telescope is currently funded to be an interferometer array of 256 closely packed dishes that will provide an unprecedented peek into the history of our universe. There are also plans for possible future expansion to 1 024 dishes.
Dr Gansen Pillay, the acting CEO, commented on the NRF’s University Flagship Programme, whose aim is to provide customized, innovative solutions and institutional support in a way that recognises the unique strength and niche research areas of public universities. “This investment in Strategic Research Equipment will further advance postgraduate student training, new knowledge generation and South Africa’s standing as a global leader in the field of astronomy,” he said.
HIRAX consortium is led out of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) under the leadership of the principal investigator Professor Kavilan Moodley. It has seven consortium members which include UKZN, SARAO, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, the Durban University of Technology, Rhodes University, UCT, and the University of the Western Cape.
There are also five international consortium partners: McGill University, ETH Zürich, Université de Genève, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and West Virginia University. In addition, there are also 12 collaboration members: Botswana International University of Technology, Laboratoire Astroparticule & Cosmologie, University of British Columbia; Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, University of Oxford, University of Toronto, the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Perimeter Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Stellenbosch University, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Yale University.