Good news has been coming out of South Africa that is of interest to the astronomical community.
Recently, astronomers there have demonstrated that they, too, can link together widely separated telescopes to effectively make one huge radio telescope, among other advances in their bid to host the world’s next premier radio observatory.
Radio astronomers have long dreamed of an telescope that would have incredibly good sensitivity by having a large collecting area. In fact, a square kilometer of such was selected as a goal, and the SKA, or Square Kilometer Array, was conceived. Dreams turned into proposals over the last several years, and two countries are now vying to host the SKA in the form of large arrays of dish-like or antenna-like radio telescopes.
Simulation of what one component of the SKA may look like when completed.
Australia and South Africa both have excellent sites far away from human civilization and all of its cell phones and cars that could interfere with faint cosmic signals. I’ve become more familiar with the South African effort lately, as the project that I am working on for my thesis is located at their candidate site. Though I haven’t been there yet, my collaborators tell me that it is totally empty, which is good if you are avoiding interference.
The South African SKA effort reached a milestone as they conducted their first solo very long baseline interferometry (or, VLBI) experiment. Remember that “planet-sized” telescope that I was just gushing over? This is that same technique, only with radio dishes that are testbeds for what may come with the SKA, the Karoo Array Telescope with seven 12-meter antennas. One of these was linked to a 26-meter dish 900 kilometers away to observe my personal favorite quasar, 3C273.
Aerial view of the seven prototype antennas currently in use.
Other milestones include the development of a dedicated computer for bringing together the signals of many antennas for analysis. The ROACH2 is a descendant of ROACH which is related to — I’m not kidding — the BEE2 and BEE. The first runs of such hardware can always be a bit buggy (har, har), but they are being used successfully in many radio astronomy projects around the world. Hardly an astronomy talk went by at the recent National Radio Sciences Meeting in Boulder, CO, without the speaker mentioning how various aspects of this hardware were involved in their experiments. It’s like being part of the future of science today!
The ROACH2, helping us explore the early universe!
I know I’ll be looking forward to the advancement of radio astronomy in both South Africa and Australia, especially when I start applying for jobs!
Images: Top: A telescope THIS BIG! Credit: Google Earth. 2nd Image Credit: International SKA. 3rd and 4th Image Credits: SKA South Africa.