Astronomers testing South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope were in for a surprise: The new telescope shows 1,300 galaxies in a patch of the sky where only 70 were previously known to exist.
And that’s despite the fact that the MeerKAT is not completely built yet, and only had 16 of its supposed 64 dishes in place. “So, right now, with only 16 of the eventual 64 dishes in place, MeerKAT is already better than anything equivalent in the Southern Hemisphere,” South Africa’s science and technology minister Naledi Pandor said.
“This is astounding because we were supposed to reach that goal only with 32 dishes. We can now expect that when the full 64 dishes are in place at the end of next year, it will be the best telescope of its kind in the world.”
Another detail that makes the MeerKAT impressive is that, apart from having the same capabilities that astronomy greats like the Hubble Space Telescope have, the MeerKAT is also a radio galaxy specialist. This means that it can see through thick layers of dust surrounding galaxies, which means it will be a superior tool in studying (and possibly photographing) supermassive black holes.
According to University of California astronomer Michael Rich in an article from National Geographic: “In some cases, the radio galaxy can have a great deal of obscuring dust, and you wouldn’t be able to see anything – or almost anything–with an optical telescope.”
“But with radio, which goes right through the dust, there’s no problem in seeing it.”
Apart from the 1,300-galaxy correction, the MeerKAT also caught this black hole in the act of spewing jets of high-speed particles.
The MeerKAT is set to be completed late next year, and will cover a span of 17,651 square meters when finished. The 64-dish telescope will be located in the Northern Cape of South Africa, away from any obstruction from the sky.
“It is all beginning to come together but there is a great deal of work to be done. This place is going to look very different in five or so years,” says Pandor. “I am really thrilled that we got to this point and that now we are beginning to be recognised as a country that can offer world-class science to the world.”
With this superbly powered telescope as well as other impressive ones in development, we are getting closer and closer to discovering the universe at a far wider range.