Site visit to SKA – South Africa

20 July 2016

(click on images within grids for a bigger image)

We had a flying visit to the SKA offices in Cape Town, South Africa for a meeting. Despite the distance, this a necessary part of the job, especially when you’re working on a globally distributed project such as the SKA. For me, this was also my first opportunity to visit the site where the South African telescope of the SKA is to be built, out in the Karoo desert. Having seen the site in Australia recently, I was excited to see the same in South Africa.

The day starts with an early morning flight from Cape Town in an executive jet, and seeing the sunrise from the air.

There is a direct flight to the observatory site, but we wanted to see the support facility in Klarefontaine, where the Engineering Operations Centre would be located. So this meant stopping in the small, nearby town of Carnarvon. Despite its remoteness and the dusty and makeshift runway, this part of the world is aware of the SKA and is preparing itself.

You’ll notice the image of the Meerkat on the billboard. The reason is that the South Africans are currently constructing their own radio telescope at the site, called MeerKAT! Still in the early stages of it’s construction and commissioning programme, early signs are that this is going to be an excellent facility from which we will have lots to learn. And to top it all, MeerKAT will eventually become a part of the SKA proper.

About an hour’s drive east of Carnarvon, is Klarefontaine, where the engineering support offices are based. We had time for a quick visit and look around.

Back on the road again and just over an hour later (it’ll be shorter once the road is completed) we are at the telescope site.

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We saw the hangar where the telescopes are constructed before being taken out to be positioned in the array.

Below, Gary has been added for scale.

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We then tour the array, but first we visit some of the other telescopes out on the site, including the HERA project, which was recently given “precursor status” for the SKA. Below, a HERA dish is on the left, while on the right is an element of its predecessor, PAPER. Both are ambitious projects to detect the Epoch of Reionisation, the time when the first stars and galaxies formed and started to ionise the predominantly neutral material that constituted the Universe at that time in its history.

Behind the PAPER array in the image above (right), you can see the 13.5-m MeerKAT telescopes, the first 16 in place, at the time we visited, with more being prepared to join the rest. When complete, it will comprise 64 dishes and will be the most powerful radio telescope in the world. Ultimately, it will join the SKA – so I guess, MeerKAT will always remain a part of the most power radio telescope on Earth until the SKA is itself surpassed sometime in the future.

The end of a great day in whichI learned a lot about the site itself and the challenges we would face operating an array out there, with dishes spread over 150-km across the desert. With those thoughts fresh in my mind, we fly back to Cape Town with a last look at MeerKAT and the future site of the core of the SKA-MID telescope.

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