22 October 2010
Five years before South Africa's MeerKAT telescope becomes operational, more than 43 000 hours of observing time (adding up to about five years) have already been allocated to radio astronomers from Africa and around the world, who have applied for time to do research with this unique and world-leading instrument. Surveys of radio pulsars and hydrogen gas in the deep universe came out on top in the first round of allocating MeerKAT's observing time.
MeerKAT is South Africa's precursor telescope to the SKA (Square Kilometre Array) and will consist of 64 Gregorian offset dishes, each 13.5 m in diameter. A MeerKAT engineering test bed of seven dishes (KAT-7) is already complete on site in the Karoo region of South Africa's Northern Cape Province.
Following an October 2009 invitation to the world's radio astronomers to apply for MeerKAT telescope time to perform large survey projects, 21 proposals, involving more than 500 astronomers from around the world (59 from Africa), were received. A Time Allocation Committee made up of local and international experts rated the proposals on the basis of scientific merit, technical and operational feasibility, the extent to which MeerKAT has a unique role for the proposed observations or is an essential component in a larger campaign, and the resources each group was prepared to bring to the project.
The science objectives of the most highly rated projects also happen to be the prime science drivers for the first phase of the SKA telescope itself, confirming MeerKAT's designation as an SKA precursor instrument. Observing time has been allocated to:
- Nearly 8 000 hours to a proposal to test Einstein's theory of gravity and investigate the physics of enigmatic neutron stars. This radio pulsar timing survey will be led by Professor Matthew Bailes at the Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing in Australia.
- Another 5 000 hours jointly to two proposals to survey the distant universe with MeerKAT. This ultra-deep survey of neutral hydrogen gas in the early universe will be led by Dr Sarah Blyth and Dr Benne Holwerda, both at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, in partnership with Dr Andrew Baker at Rutgers University in the US. The American team, involving several South African team members, called their proposal "LADUMA!" - an acronym for Looking at the Distant Universe with MeerKAT Array, but also a South African expression of delight when a goal is scored in football).
Eight other proposals were rated highly and have also been allocated time on the MeerKAT. They are:
- MESMER: MeerKAT Search for Molecules in the Epoch of Re-ionisation, led by Dr Ian Heywood, University of Oxford in the UK - 6500 hours.
- MeerKAT Absorption Line Survey, led by Dr Yashwant Gupta and Dr Raghunathan Srianand, both associated with the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope in India - 4 000 hours.
- MHONGOOSE: MeerKAT HI Observations of Nearby Galactic Objects: Observing Southern Emitters, led by Professor Erwin de Blok at the University of Cape Town in South Africa - 6 000 hours.
- TRAPUM: Transients and Pulsars with MeerKAT, led jointly by Dr Benjamin Stappers at the Joddrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, UK and Professor Michael Kramer at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Germany - 3 080 hours.
- A MeerKAT HI Survey of the Fornax Cluster, led by Dr Paolo Serra at ASTRON, an astronomy research institute in The Netherlands - 2 450 hours.
- MeerGAL: A MeerKAT High Frequency Galactic Plane Survey, led jointly by Dr Mark Thompson, University of Hertfordshire in the UK and Dr Sharmilla Goedhart of the South African MeerKAT team - 3 300 hours.
- MIGHTEE: MeerKAT International GigaHertz Tiered Extragalactic Exploration Survey, led by Dr Kurt van der Heyden, University of Cape Town with Dr Matt Jarvis who represents both the University of the Western Cape in South Africa and the University of Hertfordshire in the UK - 1 950 hours.
- ThunderKAT: The Hunt for Dynamic and Explosive Radio Transients with MeerKAT, led by Professor Patrick Woudt, University of Cape Town in South Africa and Professor Rob Fender at the University of Southampton in the UK - 3 000 hours.
"In addition to these ten high priority surveys, there is a strong case for MeerKAT to participate in the world-wide VLBI (very long baseline interferometry) observations, which use telescopes all around the world, working together. "We will ensure that MeerKAT becomes affiliated to international VLBI networks and will commit time to these observations," explains Dr Bernie Fanaroff, Director of the SKA South Africa Project.
"The Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) in South Africa will lead the VLBI collaboration with all major radio astronomy observatories around the world," adds Professor Roy Booth, Associate Director: Science and Operations at the SKA South Africa Project. "MeerKAT will add considerably to the sensitivity of the global VLBI network."
"We would also like to explore the potential for SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and for collaboration with NASA on downloading information from their space probes sent to other planets," Dr Fanaroff adds as another key science objective for MeerKAT.
The teams who have submitted the successful proposals will be invited to work with the MeerKAT team throughout the design phase of the telescope, and to become involved in the project's human capacity building programme.
- Also read a summary of the TAC report