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

For a number of years, hubby has been working for a truly fascinating science and technology project in South Africa. Known as the Karoo Array Telescope, this is a radio astronomy telescope (Wikipedia: Radio telescope) that is being constructed some 90km outside the small town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape Province. (Note: South Africa already has a fantastic optical telescope (Wikipedia: Optical telescope) at Sutherland that is known as the Southern African Large Telescope or SALT. This is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, with a hexagonal mirror array 11 metres across.) Radio astronomy “is a subfield of astronomy that studies celestial objects at radio frequencies” (Wikipedia: Radio astronomy).

The photograph above shows the KAT-7, a prototype interferometer array of seven interlinked dishes, which is the precursor of the much larger MeerKAT radio astronomy telescope array that will be built in this area. (I love the name of this project: MeerKAT = More KAT in Afrikaans, get it? πŸ˜‰ AND it’s a lovely reference to those adorable, funny, playful, entertaining creatures known as suricates, members of the mongoose family, which live in the Kalahari and Karoo and which were the stars of a BBC Animal Planet television series called “Meerkat Manor”.)

“MeerKAT will develop technologies appropriate to the SKA, including the use of composite, one-piece reflectors, single-pixel wideband receivers, low-cost, high-reliability cryogenic systems, and reconfigurable digital processing systems.” (from: SKA Africa website: Overview of MeerKAT)

Two of the dishes of the KAT-7 array

MeerKAT, consisting of 64 dishes that will be connected to the control centre in Cape Town via a high speed data network link, will be one of the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world. Currently, the envisaged commissioning date is 2013 (from: SKA Africa website: Overview of MeerKAT).

“MeerKAT will be the most sensitive centimetre-wavelength radio telescope in the southern hemisphere, and will make significant contributions to both galactic and extragalactic astronomical research. MeerKAT will explore phenomena such as cosmic magnetism, the evolution of individual galaxies and clusters of galaxies, the influence of dark matter on galaxies and clusters, and the nature of transient radio sources.” (from: SKA Africa website: Specifications and Science of MeerKAT)

Four of the dishes lined up in the late afternoon sunlight

MeerKAT, furthermore, is a precursor of an international project known as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – which will be the largest earth-based radio astronomy telescope array in the world, once it is up and running. There are two countries currently competing for the right to host this array: Australia (partnering with New Zealand) and South Africa (partnering with eight other African countries).

The decision as to which country (or rather continent) will host the SKA will be made in the next year (2012). Naturally, we are holding thumbs that it will be coming to our part of the world! In the meantime, though, work is going full-steam ahead on the KAT-7 and the MeerKAT.

Listening, listening...

The Northern Cape Province – and specifically the area where the KAT-7 and soon the MeerKAT dishes will be located – not only has the lowest population density in South Africa, but is particularly isolated, barren and dry – all factors that were particularly favourable for proclaiming this as a so-called radio reserve, with extremely low levels of RFI (radio frequency interference) (as is explained on the SKA Africa website: Astronomy Geographic Advantage). Thanks to the strong support from the South African government, the so-called Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, Act 21 of 2007, was promulgated – thereby ensuring that this area remains protected against future electromagnetic interference or RFI.

The KAT-7 dishes look tiny in the vast Karoo landscape

The reason why this is so important, is because these extremely sensitive dishes will be collecting data from the universe that is so faint and weak, that the data can be rendered completely unusable by interference from cellphones, television, air traffic, electricity pylons, computers, etc. A serious amount of research and technological innovation has gone into ensuring that RFI from all the components and the necessary infrastructure is prevented or at least minimised.

Zooming in along the access road

Partnerships have already been established with eight other African countries, including Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Zambia. Although the core site of the SKA (if we win the bid!) will be located about 90km outside Carnarvon, there will be remote stations spread out at distances of up to 3,000km from the core, which is why it was important to involve other countries in Africa.

“The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) promises to revolutionise science by answering some of the most fundamental questions that remain about the origin, nature and evolution of the universe. With about 3 000 receptors linked together and a total collecting area of one square kilometre, the SKA will have 50 times the sensitivity and 10 000 times the survey speed of the best current-day radio telescopes.

With global investment supporting the project and astronomers and engineers around the world already working on its design, construction on the SKA is scheduled to start around 2016. The first astronomical observations are expected by 2019 and the telescope should be fully functional by 2024.” (from: SKA Africa: Press release of January 2011)

A wonderful spin-off of this project is that it is already increasing levels of interest in science, technology, mathematics, engineering, astronomy, information technology, etc. among school children, university students and graduates. This can only be of benefit to the country. And with the LeadSA initiative identifying the SKA as one of its five areas of focus and with more and more exposure in the media of this project, there has been a steady increase in awareness among the public, which is fantastic.

So now you know. πŸ™‚

Silhouettes against the vast sky

More Information:

Previous Posts about the Karoo Array Telescope, with more Pictures:

  1. The KAT containers and an inquisitive cat
  2. Carnarvon, here we come!
  3. Cape Town to Carnarvon
  4. Carnarvon to Losberg
  5. Losberg to the KAT-7 site
  6. KAT-7 site to Klerefontein
  7. Returning home to Cape Town
  8. RFI shielded containers
  9. Preparing for the departure of the containers
  10. The KAT containers head north
  11. Horses visit the KAT

Mother Nature's colour palette is simply awe-inspiring...

20 thoughts on “Introducing the Karoo Array Telescope

  1. Hi Reggie
    What stunning photographs – and a very interesting article. Your hubby is lucky to be working on such an interesting project. I am sure it is FREEZING at Sutherland right now — it’s freezing here in Pinelands.
    Interestingly the MUSE mag features the small Magellanic cloud on its cover this month and an interview with Cliff Turk, an astronomer in Pinelands.—hope you enjoy it.
    Keep well

    • Hello Glynnis

      The photos were taken by Richard during a site visit some time last year – I agree that they are spectacular!

      The KAT-7 site is actually much further north than Sutherland (which must surely hold the record for the coldest place in South Africa), so they don’t get snowfalls up there, but they do get thunderstorms from time to time… and it’s bitingly cold in the winter months.

      (I’ve got the heater on… shhhh, don’t tell Eskom…. ;-))

      Oooh! I haven’t received the MUSE yet – I must check my postbox!!! I LOVE reading the MUSE – it’s so chockablock full of interesting articles and beautiful photos!! πŸ˜‰

      Hope you stay warm,

    • Glynnis – I have just received my copy of The Muse in my postbox. As always, it is such a pleasure to read. The picture on the cover is truly magical.

      (For my readers: you can read the Pinelands Muse online here.

  2. I was afraid, that you had visitors from space – UFO’s we call them here – when I saw photo no. 1 and 7……..
    Anyway – reading your story here is very interesting. And I love the photos. What a magnificent landscape (in photo no. 5) – SO beautiful. And an amazing sky in your last picture.
    Great post!

    • LOL… no, these are definitely not visitors from space… though they are scanning, scanning, scanning the heavens! πŸ˜‰

      I shall tell Richard you loved the photos – he took them in December last year when he visited the site. I also think they are magnificent.

  3. Fascinating project, and your husband’s photos are wonderful, especially the silhouette one. Such an incongruous mix of natural beauty and high-tech constructions. Looking forward to hearing more about the project in the future.
    PS. I think MeerKAT is *such* a clever name, really made me chuckle πŸ™‚

  4. Alison passed your blog on to me. I am awe-struck and gob-smacked!

    You have opened up a new world for me – especially with these man-made miracles in communion with the energies and forces of the universe.

    Wonderful writing and photography. It is thrilling and fascinating to be a passenger on your wonderful projects and adventures.

    Thank you.


    • Hi Charlotte –
      thank you sooo much for your kind words, I’m really pleased you enjoyed reading my blog. I can’t take credit for the photos on this post, though – it was hubby who went trudging up the hilltop in the fading light to get those long-distance landscape shots. πŸ™‚
      I hope you’ll pop in again soon. Bye for now!

  5. Fab photo’s Reggie, I also love the Karoo, wide open spaces, and really good fresh clean air, thank you for all the interesting info.

  6. I am so pleased to find your site. I just read about you in Anil Ananthaswamy’s “The Edge of Physics”. What a wonderful and exciting challenge.

    Good luck to all of you !!

  7. Please convey my congratulations to your husband on his photos. He managed to capture something about the remote isolated place with the large empty sky above. Must be unbelievable to look up at the night sky there! My favourite is the last one..

    I also think the name MeerKAT is a brilliant choice.

I'd love to hear your views

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