South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope is already the most sensitive telescope of its kind; the construction of the additional 20 dishes will increase the scope’s sensitivity and ability to understand the universe.

The construction of the additional dishes will come at a price tag of $54m, or R800 million. However, the costs will be split equally between the South African government and Germany’s Max Planck Society.

Fernando Camilo, the chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), told Science that the expansion will “enhance an already impressive instrument”. Camilo explains:

“The extended MeerKAT will be an even more powerful telescope to study the formation and evolution of galaxies throughout the history of the universe”.

What does this mean for MeerKAT

The new dishes will have a slightly different design from the existing ones 64 antennas. In addition, the diameter of the new dishes is 15 meters instead of 13.5 meters. 

According to Rob Adam, SARAO’s managing director, the new dishes are scheduled to come online in 2022, and will be designed to be part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The project forms part of MeerKAT’s ambitious plan to eventually be combined with the Square Kilometre Array to form the largest radio telescope in the world.

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Image via Universe Today

Understanding space

When that happens, scientists might be able to finally explain every thing from the big bang to how galaxies are formed and understanding the nature of dark matter.

The government’s contribution towards the project is South Africa’s pledge for the first phase; and SKA is also hoping to attract additional funding and new partners before construction begins in 2021.

South Africa was a memer of the SKA Organisation until 2014, and Germany’s Max Planck Society is a former member who rejoined in organisation in 2019.

MeerKAT’s discoveries

Back in September 2019, an international team of astronomers, scientists and researchers used MeerKat to discover ‘balloon-like structures towering hundreds of light years above and below the centre of the Milky Way.

The ‘towers’, or ‘bubbles’ as some scientists refer to it, were caused by a “phenomenally energetic burst that erupted near the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole a few million years ago”. At the time, Camilo explained:

“Teasing out the bubbles from the background noise was a technical tour de force, only made possible by MeerKAT’s unique characteristics and ideal location”.

SKA Science Director Dr. Robert Braun explained that the impressive MeerKAT image (seen below) is “likely to be the first of many that will permit new insights in to the workings of the cosmos”.

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The stunning radio image obtained by MeerKAT shows the central portions of the Milky Way galaxy. Its plane, marked by a series of bright features, runs horizontally through the image, while the newly discovered radio bubbles extend vertically above and below. Photo:ARAO. Adapted from results published in Heywood et al. 2019