South Africa Building The Southern Hemisphere's Largest Radio Telescope

The MeerKAT radio telescope being built by the South African team preparing SA’s bid for hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) has passed its first test with flying colours.

Close to 100 young scientists and engineers are working on the MeerKAT, a world-class radio telescope designed to do groundbreaking science. It will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until completion of the SKA.

An international panel of experts has declared that the MeerKAT has passed its preliminary design review with distinction, SKA South Africa said in a statement this week.

“This is a major milestone in the construction of the 64-dish radio telescope in the Karoo Astronomy Reserve, in the Northern Cape, and follows the successful passing of the MeerKAT concept design review, carried out by another top-level international panel in July 2010.

“With 64 offset dishes, each 13.5 metres in diameter, the MeerKAT will be one of the largest, most sensitive and scientifically most exciting radio telescopes in the world,” SKA South Africa said. “It has already grabbed the attention of the world and has attracted tremendous international interest from scientists, engineers and industry.”

The South African government has already committed funds to build the telescope.

Thumbs-up from world’s top radio astronomers

The preliminary design review (PDR) was carried out in Cape Town by a panel consisting of some of the world’s leading radio astronomers from India, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Chile and Australia. The panel was convened to evaluate all aspects of the design of the MeerKAT, the system engineering development process, risk potential and satisfaction of user requirements.

The panel unanimously concluded that the PDR has been successfully passed and congratulated the project teams.

“We note with great appreciation the exceptional openness and transparency of the project management and teams, which is of very great importance also for the SKA telescope,” the panel said. “We are extremely impressed by the quality of the project team, and the continued tremendous progress in realising KAT-7 [a seven-dish engineering test bed] and bringing MeerKAT to its current stage.”

The panel noted that the South African team working on the MeerKAT was exceptionally capable and skilled and extremely enthusiastic and committed. It commended the project team for the intelligent approach towards systems engineering, looking after the fundamental technology development while at the same time implementing formal procedures. It highlighted in particular the thorough approach towards the design of the infrastructure for the telescope.

The PDR report pointed out some risks that will need to be minimised before deployment of the full system in the Karoo, particularly the need to ensure that mechanical and structural tolerances can be achieved at reasonable cost, and the need for continued care to avoid self-generated radio frequency interference

The panel noted the critical role of KAT-7 as an engineering test-bed and science verification system in the risk mitigation for the MeerKAT. It concluded that there were no unacceptably high risks and that the project had a well-defined risk management structure that was well adhered to throughout the project.

Tenders for construction of infrastructure

According to SKA South Africa, now that the MeerKAT has passed this crucial milestone, tenders will be issued from October 2011 for the construction of the infrastructure for the telescope, including roads, power and optical fibre reticulation, buildings and foundations for the dishes.

The telescope subsystems will now also proceed to develop detailed specifications to enable the development and procurement of these systems. Some major components with long lead items, such as the antenna structures, will go out soon as requests for information.

“The successful PDR has again confirmed that South Africa has world-class scientists, engineers and industries, which is why global leaders like Intel, IBM and Nokia Siemens Networks want to work with the team,” SKA South Africa project director Dr Bernie Fanaroff said in the statement.

“The PDR has confirmed that the MeerKAT will be among the most competitive telescopes in the world. It will provide African and international scientists and engineers with a cutting edge instrument for revolutionary science and technology,” Fanaroff said.

“It has already strengthened the African bid, led by South Africa, to host the Square Kilometre Array – the “SKA in Africa.”

The news follows the earlier announcement that the KAT-7 telescope was reaching engineering completion, that commissioning and learning would be ongoing, and that an operational baseline will be established by the end of the year.

“With the completion of KAT-7, the project team will focus on the construction of the bigger MeerKAT,” SKA South Africa said.