Germany is investing R400 million to expand South Africa's giant MeerKAT telescope

Business Insider SA
A MeerKAT type dish (Wikipedia commons)
A MeerKAT type dish (Wikipedia commons)
  • South Africa’s 64-dish MeerKAT telescope is set to get another 20 dishes, at a cost of R800-million. This will increase its computing requirements 10-fold.
  • The South Africa-funded and -designed MeerKAT is already the most sensitive telescope of its kind in the world. It will eventually be folded into the Square Kilometre Array, which when built will be the largest radio telescope.
  • South Africa plans to develop prototype computing infrastructure for the first phase of the SKA.
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New additions to the MeerKAT telescope will push its computing requirements up 10-fold, requiring an overhaul of its computing hardware. The 64-dish telescope will grow by 20 dishes – expanding the maximum distance between dishes from 8km  to 17km, which pushes up both its sensitivity and ability to create radio images. But this comes at a computing cost. 

The storage capacity required to store all the data that the larger MeerKAT will collect is in the region of 100 PetaBytes, which is about 22 million DVDs. “The timing of (the) MeerKAT Extension coincides with a planned refresh of the existing MeerKAT compute hardware in order to capitalise on technology advances,” says Rob Adam, managing director of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO). 

The extension of MeerKAT is a joint venture between South Africa and Germany, with both countries contributing about R400 million. The Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy will provide the actual dishes, though funding from the Max Planck Society. 

The South African funding will come out of the SARAO’s existing budget, Adam says. When inaugurated in 2018, MeerKAT had a price tag of R4.4 illion. It is the most sensitive telescope of its kind in the world and has already made scientific discoveries, such as the giant bubbles of radiation at the centre of our galaxy

MeerKAT will eventually become part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) which, when complete, will be the world’s largest radio telescope (and the largest scientific apparatus on Earth) with dishes and antennas in South Africa and Australia

The SKA will be built in stages, with the $1-billion first phase expected to start in late 2021. The first phase will see the number of dishes in South Africa growing to 194, and more than 130,000 antennas in Australia. 

SARAO’s Adam anticipates that the new MeerKAT dishes will be operational by the end of 2022. 

The MeerKAT extension will be included in the first phase of the SKA, says SKA spokesperson William Garnier. The dishes are SKA compliant, and the global SKA project had been involved throughout the the development of the planning. 

The value of the extension will be part of South Africa’s contribution to the SKA, says Adam. “It also fits in with existing SARAO plans to develop prototype compute infrastructure of SKA1 as part of our contribution to developing the SKA1 system.”

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