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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