MeerKAT telescope images
A wide-field view of one of the cluster fields showing several different types of radio structures imaged by MeerKAT (Image: SARAO)
  • The MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape captures electromagnetic radiation emitted by galaxy clusters throughout space.
  • This data helps astronomers better understand the formation and evolution of galaxies throughout the universe.
  • It also produces unique images of galactic storms and jets of material spewed out of supermassive black holes.
  • The MeerKAT Galaxy Cluster Legacy Survey, recently published in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal, is the culmination of 1,000 hours of telescope time focused on 115 galaxy clusters.
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South Africa's MeerKAT radio telescope located near the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon has spent approximately 1,000 hours observing 115 clusters of galaxies. The images and findings have now been published the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal.

The Karoo Array Telescope, now known as the MeerKAT, was launched in 2018. It consists of 64 interlinked receptor dishes that are each 13.5 metres in diameter. The telescope studies distant galaxy clusters by capturing the electromagnetic radiation emitted by ultra-hot gas, electrons, and protons moving close to the speed of light, and dark matter.

MeerKAT telescope images
The complex environment around a massive galaxy cluster, showing the interaction of several radio galaxies with the cluster gas. (Image: SARAO)

The results of the first observatory-led survey using the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory's (SARAO) MeerKAT telescope were published in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal on Thursday.

For a year following its launch, the MeerKAT telescope spent around 1,000 hours studying the radio emission from 115 clusters of galaxies. It took a further two years to convert this raw data into the into radio images.

MeerKAT telescope images
Shock-heated regions on the edges of a galaxy cluster, signposts of a highly energetic collision between two clusters of galaxies (Image: SARAO)

The MeerKAT Galaxy Cluster Legacy Survey (MGCLS), undertaken by a group of international experts and led by South African researcher Dr Kenda Knowles, presents more than 50 newly discovered patches of radio emissions.

From dramatic storms in galaxy clusters, to jets of material spewed out of supermassive black holes, the survey provides new information on the formation and evolution of galaxies throughout the universe.

MeerKAT telescope images
Two giant radio galaxies (more than one million light-years from end to end) at the centre of a large group of galaxies in the cluster Abell 194, revealing the presence of relatively narrow magnetic filaments in the region, as well as complex interactions between the radio emission from the two galaxies. The MeerKAT radio image is shown in orange, with an optical image dominated by normal galaxies shown in white. (Image: SARAO)

"That's what's already enabled us to serendipitously discover rare kinds of galaxies, interactions, and diffuse features of radio emission, many of them quite beautiful," said Knowles, currently a Research Fellow at Rhodes University and a former SARAO Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

And while the MGCLS has provided vital information to further our understanding of the universe it's also "unveiled a whole new set of mysteries to conquer, which is thrilling," said Knowles.

MeerKAT telescope images
Evidence of a powerful merger taking place between two or more massive groups of gas and galaxies. These structures (a so-called ‘halo’ near the centre and two ‘relics’ surrounding it are seen in the galaxy cluster MCXC J0352.4-7401) trace the positions and strengths of cosmic magnetic fields and electron populations travelling near the speed of light. This MeerKAT image spans approximately 10 million light-years at the distance of the cluster, and is sprinkled with point-like radio emission from even more distant Milky Way-like galaxies (Image: SARAO)

One image produced by the MeerKAT telescope includes two giant radio galaxies – more than one million light-years from end to end, where one light year is equal to 9.5 trillion kilometres – and the complex interactions of the emissions between them.

Another reveals a powerful merger taking place between two or more massive groups of gas and galaxies.

"Most of the galaxies that live in clusters are no longer forming stars, but how long it takes to shut off star formation for galaxies that fall into clusters, and how it happens, is still an open question," said Kabelo Kesebonye, a UKZN PhD student who contributed to the study by checking the accuracy of the MeerKAT source positions against optical galaxy catalogues.

(Compiled by Luke Daniel)

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