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SA’s new giant telescope discovers massive bubbles in the Milky Way - by accident

Sarah Wild , Business Insider SA
 Sep 11, 2019, 07:00 PM

A composite image from the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory.
  • SA astronomers stumbled across two giant bubbles of radiation in the centre of the galaxy. 
  • The discovery was made by accident when SA’s Meerkat telescope was pointed to the centre of the galaxy to create an image of the Milky Way. 
  • The discovery was published in journal Nature, and almost 100 authors. 
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage. 

Two giant bubbles of radiation - up to 1400 light-years across - are expanding from the centre of the Milky Way, and have been observed for the first time using South Africa’s new MeerKAT telescope.

Scientists suspect our galaxy’s usually calm supermassive black hole entered into a “feeding frenzy” a few million years ago, swallowing massive lumps of gas and matter, and the bubbles are the black hole’s consequent belch of radiation. 

Their findings were published in Nature this week.

This is the first result using the full 64 dishes that comprise the South Africa-designed and -built MeerKAT telescope

The telescope will ultimately be absorbed into the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA is set to become the largest radio telescope on Earth and will include thousands of dishes on the African continent and millions of antennas in Australia.

Also read: SA’s new MeerKAT telescope has spotted one of the most magnetic objects in the universe

But the discovery of the radio bubbles was an accident, the paper authors said. For the inauguration of the telescope last year, astronomers pointed the dishes at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, to create an image to showcase the capabilities of the telescope, said Fernando Camilo, chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and an author on the paper. 

“We were more focused with making a pretty image, but after the inauguration, in September of last year once things had calmed down, we analysed the data” and discovered the radio bubbles, he said.

“[Discovering] the bubble structure itself was entirely serendipitous,” explained Ian Heywood, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and an honorary professor at Rhodes University of South Africa.

 “Only because of MeerKAT’s exceptional capabilities could we pick up the bubble structure.”

He said that the discovery was “the result of many diligent and clever people over many years."

"There are about 100 authors on the paper, and everyone of those people deserves to be there.” 

Authors include Bernie Fanaroff, former director of the SKA South Africa project, director of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory Rob Adam, and Tracy Cheetham, head of construction planning for the observatory.

Speaking about the author list, often referred to as a “builders list”, Camilo says: “Without them, this work wouldn’t exist. They’re mostly South Africans, and mostly [from] South African institutions. It is awesome to see the names in Afrikaans, English, traditional African languages.”

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