Category Archives: Karoo Array Telescope and MeerKAT

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The Pinelands Muse leaps into its third year of publication

And Richard becomes famous! :-)

Since October 2010, a glossy community magazine has popped into our postbox towards the end of each month (I wrote about their first anniversary here). Known as the Pinelands Muse, or just affectionately as ‘The Muse’, it focuses on the comings and goings in the neighbourhoods of Pinelands and Thornton, and it is a wonderful treasure chest of information about the fascinating people who live here and their unusual or exciting occupations, hobbies and travels to near and far.

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Four of the dishes lined up in the late afternoon sunlight

Timelapse video of the KAT-7 array in the Karoo

With the exciting decision, as to whether the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the biggest Earth-based radio telescope in the world, will be hosted in Southern Africa or in Australia plus New Zealand, looming on the horizon, Rupert at the SKA South Africa office in Cape Town has put together this playful and funky timelapse video, starring the KAT-7 array against the night sky:  KAT-7 Array Timelapse (click to play the video clip in YouTube).

KAT-7 is a seven-dish radio astronomy telescope that has been built, and is currently being commissioned, in the Northern Cape, outside the small town of Carnarvon. It is a prototype array for the far larger and more ambitious 64-dish MeerKAT, a mid-frequency ‘pathfinder’ or demonstrator radio telescope, which is to be built alongside the proposed SKA core site in the next few years.

Curious?

Have a browse through the latest newsletters of the SKA South Africa here: http://ska.ac.za/newsletter/index.php.

Or check out my other posts here: Blog posts.

We are living in exciting times!

Sunset at the KAT-7 site
Four of the dishes lined up in the late afternoon sunlight

Introducing the Karoo Array Telescope

If you have ever scrolled down the right-hand margin of my blog, you might have spotted a section called “Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7)” beneath the following photograph of seven structures that look like high-tech satellite dishes pointing straight up at the sky.

In case this has mystified you, I wanted to take a moment to introduce you to KAT-7, MeerKAT and the SKA.

The sun sets on the seven radio astronomy dishes in the Karoo

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Horses visit the Karoo Array Telescope

Last week, hubby and a few colleagues from work spent some time in the Karoo at the site, where the dishes of the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) – a telescope that will be used for radio astronomy – are being constructed and set up (see the story of our group visit to the site in June last year).

The sun sets on the seven radio astronomy dishes that make up the KAT-7 project

Early on Friday morning, much to their surprise, they were met on-site by a herd of inquisitive horses. They appeared to be conducting an inspection of the dishes.

Inquisitive horses inspecting the dishes

There were seven horses in total.

From left to right: two chestnuts, two duns, a grey horse and a dark bay
And a blue roan was waiting for the gate to be opened

The grey horse and the dark bay were rearing up, play-fighting with each other, but stopped as soon as hubby approached with the camera. The little chestnut pony looked particularly cuddly and curious.

Curious chestnut pony

They clustered around the pedestals and in the shadow of the dishes mounted above.

Clustering around one of the pedestals

What made this visit by the horses even more amazing for me was the fact that I had been dreaming about horses for two nights in a row. As a result, when I received the pictures of the horses, it felt exactly as though the horses who had featured in my rather vivid and life-like dreams had leapt from the world of my imagination out into reality.

What a magical and synchronicitous experience!

What an extraordinary sight!

The KAT containers head north!

On Monday morning, bright and early, we “rushed” down the N2 (or rather, as slowly as the early-morning commuter traffic allowed) to make it to the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Observatory, Cape Town, around 8h00.

The sun was hiding behind a solid grey blanket of cloud, which fortunately did not release any rain. In fact, it even cleared up a little in the late morning, which was greatly appreciated. After all, we’d had an entire Sunday of solid, soaking rain, the kind that seeps into the ground and turns it into squelchy, soggy mud. These were not ideal conditions for lifting heavy containers onto trucks, but that is what had to be done today (see previous post about the preparations here).

When we arrived, we found the trucking contractor Philip already on-site; his driver Johannes was attempting to reverse his 22 metre-long truck down the narrow road from the River Club to the turn-off onto the small side-road leading to the Wild Fig restaurant. It was no mean feat, particularly because he kept having to pause for cars who insisted on dodging around him.

The 22-metre-long truck arrives
The 22-metre-long truck arrives

After driving fowards and backwards several times, he was finally in situ, just on the edge of the little side-road, facing the entrance to the SAAO. As it would be impossible for this monster to negotiate the narrow curving roads at the SAAO, Philip had subcontracted a special (smaller) crane truck that would be able to drive in, lift the containers, and carry them out to the big truck one at a time.

We briefly showed Philip and his driver Johannes the two containers that had to be moved.

Obert, Philip, Richard and Johannes in front of the containers
Obert, Philip, Richard and Johannes in front of the containers

A short while later, the crane truck finally arrived, having gotten stuck in traffic.

The crane truck arrives
The crane truck arrives

The forklift had to be lifted off first, to make room for the container.

Lowering the forklift onto the ground
Lowering the forklift onto the ground

Then came the Big Challenge:

The crane truck had to reverse down a narrow lane and around a corner – while avoiding three drains, a fence, the side of a house, and a large tree. The drains were the trickiest. We were very worried that the sheer weight of the truck would crack the drain covers. It took a few forward-and-backward manoeuvres, but they made it at last!

Crane truck reversing down the lane
Crane truck reversing down the lane

The crane truck continued reversing over the grass until it reached the site where the four containers were neatly lined up next to each other.

The truck reverses down the grassy lane
The truck reverses down the grassy lane

I found myself a good vantage point at the top of a building overlooking the site. One of the guys from the crane team clambered up onto the top of the Site Services Container (SSC) and hooked the chains to the four corners of the container.

Hooking up the chains
Hooking up the chains

He balanced ontop, making sure that the crane was lifting up the container evenly. Each container weighs about 5 tons, give or take.

Balancing on the top
Balancing on the top

The crane carefully lifted the container…

Up, up and away!
Up, up and away!

… and swung it around so that it could be lowered gently onto the back of the truck.

Lowering the container onto the truck
Lowering the container onto the truck

After the crane had been lowered and the supporting legs at the rear of the truck had been retracted, it headed forward across the grassy field. There were two cables hanging in the way, but fortunately there was enough play in them so that the chap sitting ontop of the container could lift them out of the way.

Ducking underneath the cables
Ducking underneath the cables

But the low branches of the tree proved a somewhat trickier obstacle, even more so because the drains left so little room to manoeuvre.

Obstacles
Obstacles

At last, thanks to some superior driving skills and a good eye for small but vital gaps, the truck was in the clear. And a few moments later, the first of the two containers could be lifted onto the large truck-and-trailer waiting outside the grounds of the SAAO.

Lowering the SSC onto the large trailer
Lowering the SSC onto the large trailer

Philip, Richard, Japie and Willem kept a watchful eye on things.

Philip, Richard, Japie and Willem
Philip, Richard, Japie and Willem

While we were standing there, a van with a very impatient driver, who did not want to wait for the crane truck to make way for him, swerved onto the grass and tried to squeeze past the large trailer on the other side. It may look in the photo as though there was plenty of space, but there was some sort of drain in the middle, so the only way past was to drive through the mud.

We thus watched, somewhat bemused, as he drove straight into the mud, clearly hoping that his speed would carry him through. It didn’t, so he had to reverse. Then he accelerated forward again, and got a little more stuck. He was sliding around in the mud quite a bit, and we were concerned that he might collide with the big trailer.

Sensing impending disaster, Willem and Japie, closely followed by Philip and Richard, sprinted down to the van to give him a little push. Thankfully, it worked!

The men lend a helping hand
The men lend a helping hand

The crane truck headed back into the grounds to pick up the second container, the Antenna Services Container.

The crane lifts up the ASC
The crane lifts up the ASC
And lowers it carefully onto the truck
And lowers it carefully onto the truck
Before driving carefully over the grass and down the narrow lane
Before driving carefully over the grass and down the narrow lane

Roufurd came by to have a look at what was happening.

Richard and Roufurd
Richard and Roufurd

I watched the crane truck driving down to the main gate…

Approaching the main gate
Approaching the main gate

… and out.

Crane truck leaving the SAAO with the ASC
Crane truck leaving the SAAO with the ASC

Then it was a simple matter of hooking up the chains of the crane to the container…

Hooking up the crane
Hooking up the crane

… and lifting it onto the flat bed of the large trailer. (And as you can see, the weather is clearing up nicely!)

Transferring the container over to the trailer
Transferring the container over to the trailer

Willem, Japie, Richard and Philip were deep in conversation, sharing a lighthearted moment.

A lighthearted moment
A lighthearted moment

At last, both containers had been secured on the massive trailer-truck. The driver Johannes carefully negotiated the corner and turned his vehicle into the side-road leading down to Liesbeek Parkway.

The trailer truck drives off slowly
The trailer truck drives off slowly

A few moments later, he crossed the little bridge over the Liesbeek River.

Crossing the river
Crossing the river

We waved goodbye to the two containers, as they disappeared in the traffic.

Goodbye!
Goodbye!

They have a long trip ahead of them, and are expected to arrive at the Losberg site sometime on Tuesday.

Preparing for the departure of the KAT containers

Background

On 6 May 2009, four containers arrived at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Observatory, Cape Town.

These weren’t just normal containers, though. These were very special containers: high-tech, RFI-shielded containers, especially designed and outfitted to accommodate all the complicated equipment that will be needed to  control, operate and process the data from the brand new radio astronomy telescopes that are being built in the Northern Cape.

Currently, seven radio astronomy antennas are being designed, constructed and set up at the site (KAT-7). These will be followed in due course by about 80 antennas that make up the MeerKAT project. (See lengthy article about the MeerKAT and SKA projects that appeared in Popular Mechanics of December 2007, and also article in Engineering news of 03 April 2009.)

The various teams at the KAT office in Pinelands have been hard at work on two of the containers, the Site Services Container (SSC) and the Antenna Services Container (ASC), which are the first two containers to be transported up to the core site at Losberg.

Friday

On Friday last week, a couple of guys from Thermodynamics, Fluids and Design (TFD), a company based in Stellenbosch, were still busy installing the cooling system inside the two containers. The equipment in the containers is going to generate a LOT of heat – quite apart from the fact that the containers will also be exposed to external heat in the Karoo, so an effective ventilation and cooling system is essential.

The cooling equipment is being installed
The cooling equipment is being installed

Here they are, attaching the pipes inside the Site Services Container. Other than the cooling equipment, there isn’t much else in here right now, apart from a couple of lights. Richard briefly turned on the fan in the other container, to demonstrate how noisy it would be inside this claustrophobic space – but then it isn’t intended to be used as an office, after all.

Inside the ASC
Inside the ASC

Apparently, this container will not be used for the KAT-7 project at the moment, but for the so-called PAPER project, which has nothing to do with paper as such – the acronym stands for “Precision Array to Probe the Epoch of Reionization”. The SSC will thus house the PAPER equipment, which will be used to receive the data from an array of dipole antennas to be erected somewhere in the vicinity of the KAT-7 core site at Losberg. (You can find out more about this at the international SKA Telescope website, which publishes regular newsletters, like this one.)

This is a glimpse inside the Antenna Services Container. At the back are three racks for electronic equipment. In the foreground are a couple of shelves, a working space and a massive 20 kVA UPS, which in the event of a power failure will (hopefully) be able to keep everything going for a few minutes so that the system can be shut down safely.

Inside the ASC
Inside the ASC

The containers have been temporarily stored at the SAAO, which is a marvellous place, absolutely steeped in history. Here you can see the SSC on the left and a small telescope building on the right, all against the magnificent backdrop of Devil’s Peak.

And look at that blue sky! Awesome!

The backdrop of Devil's Peak
The backdrop of Devil's Peak

Here, Richard is explaining things to two of his colleagues, Anja and Sharmila.

Anja, Sharmila and Richard
Anja, Sharmila and Richard

Saturday

We went through again on Saturday. TFD had completed their installations, and now Obert and his cousin were applying the finishing touches.

Here’s moi, posing with Obert in the ASC.

Obert and Reggie in the ASC
Obert and Reggie in the ASC

Finally, after all the tools had been tidied away, and all the little bits and bobs of scrap had been tossed in the bin, the guys carefully strapped down the cabinets, the shelves, and the UPS. Here’s hoping that the long truck that will transport the containers up to the site will not have to do any sharp braking!

Everything loose is strapped down
Everything loose is strapped down

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You can read more about the containers at the links below:

06 May 2009: The KAT containers and an inquisitive KAT
23 June 2009: RFI-shielded containers for the MeerKAT project
June 2009: SKA Newsletter No. 10

A large group from the KAT office in Pinelands visited the site in June this year.

Click on the links below to read about our trip:

An exciting visit to the KAT-7 site: Day 3 Returning home

We were up fairly early again on Sunday morning, had a quick breakfast, packed our bags, and then said goodbye to our toasty warm (thanks to a working heater/aircon!) home-from-home. I discovered that the building we’d stayed in had been constructed in 1869, which means that it’s now 140 years old!

Goodbye to our flatlet
Goodbye to our flatlet

We trudged down the road, enjoying the just-post-sunrise play of light on the clouds, the trees and the houses. Magic.

Our street
Our street

When we reached the camping site, most of the tents had been packed up and almost everyone was ready to leave. But then we saw a group of people clustered around one of the rear tyres. Apparently, one of the tyres that had been repaired was leaking air again. Oh dear…

Tyre trouble again
Tyre trouble again

Chris was struggling to find the right spot to place the jack underneath the chassis. It was quite tricky: the first time he jacked up the bus, he merely succeeded in compressing the shock absorbers. Eventually, both Willem and Chris crawled underneath the bus to identify the correct spot.

Willem and Chris under the bus
Willem and Chris under the bus

Once the bus had been lifted up enough (difficult, given the sandy soil and the sheer weight of the bus), the nuts were loosened with superhuman effort, and the partly deflated tyre was taken off. In its place, we mounted one of the tyres that had been repaired yesterday – hopefully, the seal would hold until we made it safely back to Cape Town.

While the men were labouring to change the tyre, I wandered around with my camera. A couple of people were playing a game of boules. Here are Ludwig, Venkat and Nada squaring off:

A game of boules, anyone?
A game of boules, anyone?

Niesa and Adriaan were fooling around:

Adriaan and Niesa
Adriaan and Niesa

What a glorious sunrise!

Morning sky
Morning sky

At last, the tyre was on, and all the bags had been stowed away in the luggage compartment. Tom did a headcount of the passengers, and identified those who would still have to be picked up at the hotel. Along the way, Chris drove past the museum to show us a reconstructed corbelled house.

Corbelled house
Corbelled house

In case you’re curious to find out a bit more about these odd-looking houses, the excellent Getaway Guide to Karoo, Namaqualand and Kalahari describes the method of construction of these buildings and a bit of their history:

“In the early 1800s, the trekboers (pioneers) crossed the northern boundary of the Cape Colony and settled in the vicinity of the Sak River in the Karoo. With not a tree in sight,the only materials available to build a shelter were flat rocks, plentiful everywhere. Using these they built beehive-shaped huts known today as ‘corbelled houses’. The name is derived from the method of construction known as ‘corbelling’, an ancient technique carried out by layout courses of flat stone, each successive one protruding a little further inward than the one preceding it, and no trusses to support the roof. This continues until the walls almost meet at the apex where the final opening is closed by one or more large slabs. Originating with the megalithic builders of the Mediterranean region over 4000 years ago, remains of this style of building can be found as far afield as France, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and even Greenland.

There is a certain amount of mystery surrounding almost all of these Karoo dwellings, as no one is quite certain when they were built. The most popular theory is that they first came into being between 1811 and 1815. Most, however, date to between the second and third quarter of the 19th century. Furthermore, it is not certain who built the first one, or how the technique arrived in the area. Did an immigrant impart knowledge of this building method to the locals, or was this 4000-year-old technique reinvented here? Today, examples exist around the towns of Loxton, Fraserburg, Williston and Carnarvon.” (Brent Naudé-Moseley and Steve Moseley, Getaway Guide to Karoo, Namaqualand and Kalahari, 2008, page 95)

This was one of several churches in the village:

A church in Carnarvon
A church in Carnarvon

I wonder what happened to the weathercock on the top of the steeple, though?

The steeple
The steeple

We stopped at one of the hotels to pick up our remaining passengers, when these two little boys came out to have a look at us and to proudly show off their wire car and – rather alarmingly – a penknife. The guys in the bus cracked a few jokes when they caught sight of the open penknife, speculating humorously whether this innocent looking little laaitie might have been the one who slashed our tyres!

Two little boys at the hotel
Two little boys at the hotel

Around the corner from the hotel, this low wall was covered in messages – “Stop Crime” – “Crime is not a solution”, “Prevent HIV and AIDS”, “Use a condom”, etc.

Wall
Wall

At long last, we waved goodbye to Carnarvon:

Goodbye, Carnarvon!
Goodbye, Carnarvon!

As it was difficult to take photos through the window of the bus, I jotted down some impressions, as we drove through the Karoo landscape: a range of flat-topped mountains on the horizon; a flock of light-brown sheep surrounding a stone basin filled with glittering water; small birds swooping and dipping across the blue sky; a large black-and-white bird perched ontop of a telephone pole; a dusty two-wheeled trailer, waiting at the side of a gravel track to nowhere; a line of tall trees leading to an isolated farmhouse on the vlakte.

A line of trees
A line of trees

I saw black-headed dorper sheep with gambolling lambs, scattered amidst grey-green shrubs in the distance; a gate with a sandy track leading off to … somewhere; a bird’s nest, like a heap of hay tossed carelessly onto a telephone pole; rocks covered with red lichen, that looked as though someone had sloshed paint over them; and hayricks piled high.

Hayricks
Hayricks

I saw piles of black boulders with sharp edges as though they’d been sliced through by a knife; carpets of smooth green interspersed with fields of tiny yellow flowers; a rusting old automobile abandoned in a ditch; clusters of reed fronds signalling underground watercourses; eroded edges of a river that must have flash-flooded sometime; dark-green bushes huddled low against reddish-brown soil; a hill with rocks lining the top like broken teeth, silhouetted against a cloudy sky; and windpumps spinning lethargically.

Windpumps
Windpumps

It’s an extraordinary landscape.

We stopped briefly at Calvinia in the hope of having a bite to eat. Unfortunately, there was a power failure in the entire village, so the 250 Myl Restaurant could only offer us some tea and coffee (boiled with a gas cooker). This was most welcome! And Richard even managed to organise a chocolate muffin for me – divine!

Chris and Richard
Chris and Richard

Keen to stretch my legs a bit after sitting for such a long time, I joined Jasper for a walk around the block. He obligingly took a photo of me in front of the famous giant postbox of Calvinia (the slot for the letters is around the side). :-)

The giant red postbox of Calvinia
The giant red postbox of Calvinia

We walked a little way along this sandy road to … I wonder where? Don’t you just love these kinds of roads? I find them so enticing…

Road to somewhere
Road to somewhere

Shortly after we’d passed Nieuwoudtville, we were enveloped by thick fog.

This is seriously dense fog
This is seriously dense fog

Chris stopped the bus at the top of the escarpment, explaining as he did so, that this stop was compulsory for heavy vehicles, to make sure that their brakes worked before they descended the steep pass down the other side. It was fortunate that we had taken our photos at the viewing site on Friday, because there was NO view today. To my relief, we made it safely down the pass onto the vast expanse of the Knersvlakte.

Descending Van Rhyns Pass
Descending Van Rhyns Pass

Amazingly, we left the fog behind us as soon as we reached the foot of the escarpment. And soon we arrived at the outskirts of Vanrhynsdorp.

Township outside Vanrhynsdorp
Township outside Vanrhynsdorp

Here we turned left onto the N7, towards Cape Town. I took advantage of the slow speed of the turning bus to take a photo of this church on the opposite side of the N7. I’d passed this so many times en route to and from Namibia, but hadn’t had an opportunity to photograph it before.

Church on the N7
Church on the N7

As we approached the Clanwilliam dam (which was 98% full), Chris explained that there were plans to increase the height of the dam wall, which would mean rerouting the existing road (the N7) to the right behind the little hill. I wonder when this is going to happen, and what impact it will have on the surrounding area? I love the area around Clanwilliam – it’s so picturesque that I kept wanting to stop the bus to take proper photos! Anyhow, here are my attempts to take some piccies through the windows, as we hurtled through the landscape.

Open fields:

Fields near Clanwilliam
Fields near Clanwilliam

A cluster of houses:

A cluster of houses
A cluster of houses

The fertile river valley with the mountains beyond:

Valley and mountains
Valley and mountains

We had our final pitstop at the now familiar garage outside Citrusdal, where we bought some tea, coffee and choccies to reinvigorate us for the remaining 2 hours’ or so drive to Cape Town.

Our final pitstop
Our final pitstop

It had been an incredible weekend.

The group vibe was great, the guys had a wonderful easygoing camaraderie, the Karoo landscape was just breathtaking, and the realisation that we were witnessing (and participating in) a little part of history-in-the-making was quite extraordinary.

But it also felt really good to be home again.

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Click on the links below for the other days:

An exciting visit to the KAT-7 site: Day 2.3 Site to Klerefontein

In the mid-afternoon, there was suddenly a mad rush to drive back to Losberg in order to see the rugby match between the touring British/Irish Lions and South Africa, being played in Durban. The guys who are currently living at Losberg had been trying to set up a DSTV antenna earlier today, but I don’t think they got it working in time for the match.

Dawie (the site manager) offered to take a group of non-mad-rugby-supporters to see some rock paintings along the way back to Losberg. About halfway back to the base, he stopped at the side of the road and then led us up a gentle slope at the foot of a flat-topped mountain, to a couple of large black boulders. Some of these had a shiny flat surface, as though they had been split apart many centuries ago.

Rock paintings on a boulder
Rock paintings on a boulder

Dawie pointed out two rock paintings on this boulder: On the top section of the rock, barely visible, was a white animal (a horse perhaps? its head is to the right); he said that this dated back to ancient times. Below it were two tall thin figures – a man and a woman – that look like they have been scratched into the rock; these are more recent.

A man and a woman
A man and a woman

We walked over to another boulder, which also had a painting of some sort of white horse on it (it’s in the centre of the photo below, with the head facing to the left). I’d love to know how old these are, and what was going through the mind of the painter at the time!

A white horse?
A white horse?

Dawie explained that there were many more of these paintings all over the area; he also added that there were large old quiver trees all along the top of the flat-topped mountain above us.

One of the boulders nearby had lichen growing on it. At first glance it looked as though someone had rubbed a bit of colourful chalk onto the rock.

Lichen growing in/on the rock
Lichen growing in/on the rock

But if you zoom in more closely, you can see it was definitely lichen:

Lichen growing on a boulder
Lichen growing on a boulder

Richard took a little group photo, showing Nina and Niesa, Anja, Reggie, Simon C, Adrianna, Tony, Dawie and Ian.

Group photo
Group photo

We met up with the rest of the group at Losberg; they were rather disappointed that the DSTV wasn’t working, and that there’d be no rugby watching tonight. So we climbed back into the bakkies and the VW minibus, and drove through to the support base at Klerefontein.

Here is a screen capture of the area from Google Maps, using the satellite image; I have tried to add the waypoints in more or less the correct locations:

Klerefontein support base
Klerefontein support base

There are several buildings at Klerefontein, including three cosy looking houses where the site manager Dawie is staying, and a couple of large sheds a little further along a gravel road. And then there is this beautiful gable house:

The newly renovated office building
The newly renovated office building

This houses the impressive, newly renovated offices of the MeerKAT project. We had a look inside – it looks fantastic! Appropriately, two little meerkat are standing guard at the entrance.

Meerkat standing guard
Meerkat standing guard

We explored the surroundings a little and came across this pretty dam in the little valley adjacent to the house. Both the dam wall and the surface of the water were covered in a carpet of fallen leaves, and the water level was so high, that it looked deceptively as though you could just step out onto the carpet and walk across the water.

But I didn’t try that. :-)

Beautiful dam
Beautiful dam

Thereafter, we returned to the large shed where supper (a spit braai) would be served. A road led up the hill behind this shed, and up to the C-BASS (C-Band All Sky Survey) dish on the top of the hill. Keen to see as much of the surroundings as possible before it was too dark to see, we marched up the little road.

Looking down towards the shed
Looking down towards the shed

The 7.6m C-BASS dish has only recently been installed here. It is a collaboration between SKA South Africa, the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory and Rhodes University, and Caltech, Oxford University and Manchester University. The second antenna that will be used for this survey is located in California, at the Owens Valley Observatory.

“The C-BASS project is intended to undertake an all-sky, total power and linear polarisation measurement to obtain a precise map, in the C-Band, of the Stokes parameters of the Galaxy. Whilst this map will be important for astronomy in general, its main function is to enable extrapolation of measurements of the total power and linearly polarized emission of the Galaxy to the bands that will be used by the Planck satellite. One of the major objectives of Planck is to detect the B-mode in CMB polarisation, which requires very precise subtraction of the Galaxy foreground.” (SKA Newsletter no. 10)

C-Bass antenna
C-Bass antenna

This photo gives a better indication of the scale of the antenna:

C-Bass antenna
C-Bass antenna

Frozen almost solid by the icy wind on the top of the hill, and with the light rapidly fading, we trudged back down the hill to the warm shed, where we found a wholesome meal waiting for us. Our caterers, led by Magrieta, had prepared a feast: a lamb spitbraai, homemade roosterkoek (baked rolls) with butter and jams, a cauliflower and broccoli salad, a mixed salad, and a dish of baked potatoes in some sort of creamy sauce. YUMM!!! Dessert consisted of malva pudding with custard.

A delicious supper
A delicious supper

Tummies full and eyes heavy (well, perhaps that didn’t apply to the youthful and high-spirited engineers at the camping site who, by all accounts, played cards until the early morning hours), we were ferried home safely by Chris, who had successfully sorted out the tyre issue of this morning.

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Click on the links below for the other days:

An exciting visit to the KAT-7 site: Day 2.2 Losberg to Site

After lunch, we climbed back into our respective vehicles and drove along the recently constructed road to the site, where the first seven antenna dishes are being put up. Gerrit stopped briefly at a deliberately widened section of the road, which he called “ons telefoonhokkie” – it’s the only place in the area where you can (sometimes) get cellphone reception (but only if you’re an MTN subscriber). :-) Willem was hoping to get hold of Darrel, who appeared to have gotten lost en route to the site.

And then, at last, we emerged from between the mountains onto a vast flat plain. I saw white circular structures standing in the middle of a large cleared area, where the reddish-brown Karoo soil had been covered in a layer of grey grit. There was no formal tour of the area, but then I guess everyone there knew what they were looking at! So it’s quite possible that there may be some technical errors in my description below.

We scattered in all directions, clutching our cameras, taking copious amounts of photos…

View of main antenna site
View of main antenna site

This is what the foundations look like (Peter obligingly jumped in so that I could photograph him conducting a closer inspection of the cement):

Peter inspects the foundation
Peter inspects the foundation

Apparently they will be covered with a grid, as in here:

Foundation with grid ontop
Foundation with grid ontop

As far as I can figure out (in non-engineering-speak) the cylindrical pillar with the door in it (centre of the photo below) goes ontop of the foundation (in the foreground). And then the cylinder with the peculiar angular thing sticking out of it (on the right of the photo) goes ontop of that. And the receiving dish (which is still being manufactured in the construction shed at Losberg) will be mounted ontop of that, although I don’t know exactly how.

The antenna pedestal
The antenna pedestal

Frankly, I’ve no idea where these bits and bobs go:

Bits and bobs
Bits and bobs

One of the pedestals had a ladder inside, so Simon C and Niesa climbed up for a better view:

Pedestal with a view
Pedestal with a view

As there was a bit of a queue to climb the ladder, I allowed myself to be sidetracked by Mother Nature instead, and came across this giant ant! Amazingly, despite its size, it appeared to be frightened of the superzoom function on my lens, so although I took about a dozen photos, I only got one where it is clearly visible. I’ve zoomed in here:

Giant ant
Giant ant

In my perambulation of the perimeter, I also found this rather large burrow. Although there were lots of smaller tunnels dotted around it, I doubt it was a snake’s home. But just in case whatever lived in there had big teeth and a nasty temper, I did give it a wide berth.

What lives here?
What lives here?

Simon and Richard strode off to find a suitable place to mount their camera, setting the angle of the lens to get optimum coverage of the entire site. They want to create a record of work being done on the site over the coming months. I think the camera is set to take a picture every couple of minutes, and will store them on an SD card. The next time someone from the office visits the site, they’ll download the pictures onto a laptop.

They found this handy fence pole right next to the approach road:

Simon and Richard set up the camera
Simon and Richard set up the camera

(Picture shows: Gerrit our driver on the left, Simon holding the camera pole, Jasper looking at the screen, Richard holding up the laptop, Ian trying to get a glimpse, and Alec inspecting the welding apparatus.)

They asked one of the workers to spot-weld the pole in place (and were more than a little alarmed when the chap proceeded to weld without safety goggles – though I think he did put them on in the end).

The welder in action
The welder in action

And then our irrepressible young engineers played a game of touch rugby on what must be one of the most unusual playing fields in the world:

A game of touch rugby
A game of touch rugby

Check out the background! The not-yet-completely-assembled pedestals of what may soon become the largest radio telescope in the world!

On the KAT-7 site
On the KAT-7 site

While the crowds cheer enthusiastically:

The cheering spectators
The cheering spectators

And all under a magnificent sky that calls out the painter within you:

A very dramatic sky
A very dramatic sky

It struck me, while I was wandering around taking photos and generally absorbing the atmosphere of this extraordinary place, that we were making history here. I felt enormously privileged to be witnessing the early beginnings of a radio astronomy telescope that (if – when! – South Africa wins the bid for the Square Kilometre Array) will be the largest and most sensitive in the world.

As the SKA South Africa website says:

“MeerKAT will be one of the world’s premier mid-frequency radio astronomy facilities that will put South Africa at the cutting edge of radio astronomy.The telescope will be constructed in phases to ensure the best value for money and sound technology choices.

  • The first phase, a one-dish prototype, has already been constructed at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) in Gauteng.
  • KAT-7, a seven-dish engineering testbed and science instrument near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape Province, will be commissioned towards the end of 2009.
  • The full array of 80 or more dishes should be ready to do science by 2012. A high speed data transfer network will link the telescope site in the Karoo to a remote operations facility.”

So here’s a photo of me, to prove that I really was there!

I wuz here!
I wuz here!

—-

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An exciting visit to the KAT-7 site: Day 2.1 Carnarvon to Losberg

We were up fairly early on Saturday morning, and walked up to the camping site shortly before 08h00 to meet up with the others. It had rained very heavily during the night, with a blustering wind howling through the trees. The campers had all been woken up by the sudden storm during the night. And what are the chances of coming to the Karoo in winter and getting pelted by bucketing rain?! Luckily, no tents had been blown away, no branches had fallen on anyone, and the ground wasn’t awash with mud. And those tents DID look cosy! It was drizzling while we walked over to the site, heavily laden down with two bulging rucksacks (full of food and water), but fortunately the rain cleared up, and we had wonderful weather all day!

We were joined for the day by Peter, who had come in his own car, by Kobie and Carel and their daughter, and by Darrel and his wife, and their little Jack Russell, Meraai, who snuggled herself into a fluffy blanket.

A snuggly puppy
A snuggly puppy

After everyone had climbed aboard, Chris drove us to the KwikSpar, so that we could buy some ingredients for lunch, as well as to stock up with some refreshments for tomorrow, as we would be leaving before the Spar opened. It was fortunate that we stopped here, because one of the guys noticed a trail of bubbles emerging from one of the tyres that happened to be partly submerged in a shallow puddle. Closer inspection revealed that the tyre was indeed losing air. Chris prised off the hubcap and, with the vigorous help of Willem, managed to loosen the very tight nuts on the wheel.

Chris and Willem exercising all their muscles
Chris and Willem exercising all their muscles

A crowd of curious children had emerged from nowhere, watching mesmerised as the men struggled to jack up the bus in order to remove the tyre. Simon, Philip, Japie, Andrew and Alec started an impromptu game of volleyball while we were waiting.

A game of volleyball
A game of volleyball

As Chris wasn’t able to jack up the bus to remove the tyre, we headed off to find a garage… It emerged that Carnarvon does not have a ‘tyre place’. The garage was closed (it was Saturday morning in a small Karoo dorpie, after all). I thought that these two signs next to each other were rather amusing: I wonder whether the mechanics sprinkle fairy dust over the engines to fix them?

An unusual collaboration: Car repairs and fairies?
An unusual collaboration: Car repairs and fairies?

Asking around finally led us to a garage that was open and able to assist us with removing and patching up the tyre. Our suspicions aroused by the fact that the tyre looked as though it had been deliberately slashed by a knife, we closely inspected the other tyres – and much to our dismay found that two more had been slashed. Not badly, mind you, but they had definitely been punctured by a sharp object, and they were definitely losing air. It must have happened while Chris had parked his bus in front of the hotel overnight.

While the repairs commenced, Simon and Richard booted up the laptop and adjusted the settings on the camera, which they wanted to mount at the KAT-7 site. They wanted to set it to take a photograph every 5 minutes or so, in order to have a record of work being done on the site.

Jasper watches as Simon adjusts the camera
Jasper watches as Simon adjusts the camera

Meanwhile, Willem organised three bakkies and a VW minibus to take all of us out to the site. Chris would be staying in Carnarvon with the bus. Richard and I got into a bakkie driven by Gerrit, who proved to be a real Karoo character, full of funny anecdotes and (im-possible?) stories about the area and the people who live here. Niesa sat in the front, wrapped in her warm anorak and a cosy blanket, Willem sat next to us, and Adriaan, James and Luyanda climbed into the back.

Here is an image capture from Google Maps, using the satellite image; I have added markers for the important points, and if you want to see the whole picture, go to my Google Map.

Screen capture from Google Maps
Screen capture from Google Maps

We drove westwards out of Carnarvon in the direction of Williston, until we saw a turn-off to ‘Brandvlei’ and ‘Vertrap Kolk’. It was a gravel road that led more or less northwards, into the wild Karoo landscape.

Gravel road heading into the Karoo
Gravel road heading into the Karoo

Only a couple of kilometres along this road, we passed Klerefontein, which is the support base for the KAT-7 and MeerKAT project. We’d be coming back here in the evening to have supper. A little further on, we passed an abandoned homestead with two corbelled houses, of which there are a couple in this area (I thought that style of building was only common in England and Ireland, so I was quite surprised to see them here too.)

After about 70 km (? not sure), at a sign for ‘Liebenberg Plase’, we turned left onto another gravel road, and then drove for another 10 mins or so until we came to a turn-off to a cluster of newly constructed buildings at the foot of a group of flat-topped mountains. This is Losberg, the on-site complex from which the antennas (which are about 6 km further away on the other side of the mountains) will be controlled and monitored.

Here is another screen capture from Google Maps, zoomed in on the area:

Losberg and surroundings
Losberg and surroundings

The guard house near the entrance to the complex is still under construction.

Guard house under construction
Guard house under construction

In the background is the huge shed, where the dishes and the pedestals are being built. In the foreground is the new accommodation building.

Construction shed and accommodation building
Construction shed and accommodation building

And if you turn 180 degrees around, you can see the new shed, where three of the brand new RFI shielded containers will be mounted.

Container shed
Container shed

Inside the MeerKAT dish construction shed is the 12 metre diameter solid mold, on which the dishes are being made, from fibreglass, I believe. This is what it looks like.

Antenna dish
Antenna dish

Willem harnessed himself to the indoor dish crane in order to get a bird’s eye view. This crane will be used to hoist up the dishes when they are ready, and to place them on a specially designed and custom-built trailer (4 m wide, 15 m long), which will transport them (carefully) to the antenna site, 6 km away.

Willem tests the indoor dish crane
Willem tests the indoor dish crane

Bits and pieces of the supporting structure were spread out on a huge piece of plastic in the other half of the shed; they looked like they had recently been sprayed white. I don’t know exactly where these belong, but I figure they must be part of the support structure for the dish.

Spray-painted bits and pieces
Spray-painted bits and pieces

After our tour of the construction shed and a visit to the new and beautiful accommodation building, we found ourselves a spot to sit, and to have our picnic lunch.

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