We're reaching for the stars‚ Mabuza says at MeerKAT launch

Deputy President David Mabuza‚ Minister of Science and Technology Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane and Minister of Higher Education Naledia Pandor at the launch of the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape on July 13‚ 2018.
Deputy President David Mabuza‚ Minister of Science and Technology Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane and Minister of Higher Education Naledia Pandor at the launch of the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape on July 13‚ 2018.
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

He said the project should grow opportunities for South Africa’s next generation and that it is “in line” with the National Development Plan.

“In mobilising our nation to respond to the emerging opportunities that are presented to humanity by the evolution of science and technology‚ our government has committed to transformative science‚ technology and innovation‚” said Mabuza.

“This commitment takes into account the evolving debate‚ research output and inventions precipitated by the evolution of the fourth industrial revolution.”

That revolution is all about the fusion of technology and reality — and in the MeerKAT’s first image of the black hole of the Milky Way‚ we are only just beginning.

The R4.4-billion radio telescope project was unveiled 70km from the tiny town of Carnarvon and in the vast big-sky landscape of the Northern Cape‚ where any interference to the signals is minimal.

The MeerKAT is now the world’s largest radio telescope and is a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)‚ which falls under the Department of Science and Technology.

It will later be integrated into the SKA‚ which will be 50 to 100 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope.

“The SKA is expected to address fundamental questions about the universe‚ including how the first stars and galaxies were formed‚” said spokesman Lorenzo Raynard.

With its image of the Milky Way black hole‚ “we wanted to show the science capabilities of this new instrument”‚ said Fernando Camilo‚ chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO)‚ which built and operates MeerKAT.

“The centre of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique‚ visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena — but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes.”

The centre of the Milky Way is 25‚000 light-years away from Earth and because it lies behind the constellation Sagittarius (the “Teapot”)‚ it is always obscured by gas and dust‚ making it “invisible from Earth using ordinary telescopes”.

“Although it’s early days with MeerKAT‚ and a lot remains to be optimized‚ we decided to go for it and were stunned by the results‚” said Camilo.

Said black hole expert Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Northwestern University in the US: “This image is remarkable.”.

He said the MeerKAT “shows so many features never before seen” that it could solve a number of astronomical riddles.

“It’s an exceptional achievement — congratulations to our South African colleagues. They’ve built an instrument that will be the envy of astronomers everywhere and will be in great demand for years to come.”

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