South Africa launches first MeerKAT antenna


27 March 2014

South Africa officially launched the first of 64 antennas that will make up the MeerKAT radio telescope, the country’s precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), at the SKA South Africa site outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape on Thursday.

The MeerKAT Karoo Array Processor Building, a cutting-edge data centre for the MeerKAT that has been built in an underground bunker at the Karoo observatory site, was officially opened at the same time.

Phil Diamond, the director-general of the international SKA Organisation, and representatives and ministers from the 11 SKA member countries and South Africa’s eight SKA African partner countries, gathered at SKA South Africa’s Radio Astronomy Reserve to witness Thursday’s launch.

“The launch of the first MeerKAT antenna signifies South Africa’s ardent commitment to the MeerKAT project and the broader SKA project,” Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said. “It further typifies the excellent engineering and technical capabilities in South Africa that have enabled us to deliver a project of this magnitude within projected timeframes and budget allocations.”

Hanekom added that the launch of the processor building, and associated design and development activities that had been undertaken, marked South Africa’s readiness to embark on a big data programme at national level.

The MeerKAT will be one of the precursors to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, and will later be incorporated into the mid-frequency component of SKA Phase 1 when that instrument is being constructed. The SKA will be the world’s largest radio telescope, located in Australia and Africa but shared by astronomers around the globe.

Astronomy teams lining up

Astronomy teams from around the world have already signed up to start using the MeerKAT as soon as 16 of its receptors have been commissioned. According to SKA South Africa, this stage should be reached by around June 2015, with the full array expected to be conducting routine science observations by the end of 2017.

Standing 19.5 metres tall and weighing 42 tons, the new MeerKAT antenna towers above the antennas of the nearby KAT-7 instrument, an engineering prototype for the MeerKAT which is now routinely used for scientific research.

The full MeerKAT array will consist of 64 identical receptors – antennas with receivers, digitizers and other electronics installed. Forty-eight of the antennas will be packed closely together in a one-kilometre diameter area, with rest located up to four kilometres from the core.

Connected by 170 kilometres of underground fibre-optic cable, the 64 receptors will operate as a single, highly sensitive astronomical instrument, controlled and monitored remotely from the MeerKAT control room in Cape Town.

One DVD’s worth of data every second

Data will flow via buried optical fibres from each receptor to the Karoo Array Processor Building, which will house all the racks of digital data processing systems and the electrical power equipment. The processed data will then sent to the MeerKAT archive in Cape Town, and on to science collaborators in South Africa and abroad.

According to Dr Jasper Horrell, general manager for science computing and innovation at SKA South Africa, the MeerKAT, once it is fully operational, will generate enough data to fill about four-and-a-half million standard (4.7 gigabyte) DVDs each day.

“However, much of this data is processed on-the-fly, and the archive will initially be sized at the equivalent of about 2-million DVDs, retaining some of the larger volume, less processed data for shorter periods and only retaining the smaller volume, more processed science data products indefinitely,” Horrell said.

At least 75% local content

SKA South Africa engineers and contracted manufacturing companies will now continue to produce the massive, high-precision components of the remaining MeerKAT antennas, and install the antennas in the Karoo, according to a tight timeline.

“By the end of 2014, the first four receptors will be standing in the Karoo. All 64 receptors will be installed by the end of 2016, with final commissioning being completed in 2017,” SKA South Africa said.

According to the organisation, at least 75% of the components making up the MeerKAT antennas will be manufactured in South Africa, although several industries in SKA Organisation partner countries around the world will also make crucial contributions.

“The global technology collaborations bring cutting-edge know-how and many years of antenna experience to the MeerKAT project, and are designed to transfer expertise to the South African industry partners. For example, the first set of reflector panels, as well as the first receiver indexer and sub-reflector, were manufactured abroad, but the remainder of these will be made locally.”

All of the on-site infrastructure – including the buildings, roads, electrical power conditioning and reticulation, and aircraft landing strip – was constructed by South African companies, managed by a SKA South Africa infrastructure team based in Johannesburg.

SAinfo reporter and SKA South Africa