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MeerKAT, which will get 20 new dishes by 2022, will eventually become part of the Square Kilometre Array, which will be the largest radio telescope in the world.

South African Radio Astronomy Observatory

This powerful observatory studying the formation of galaxies is getting a massive, $54 million expansion

South Africa’s 64-dish MeerKAT telescope is set to grow by almost one-third, significantly increasing its sensitivity and ability to image the far reaches of the universe. The 20 new dishes come with a $54 million price tag, to be split evenly between the South African government and Germany’s Max Planck Society.

MeerKAT, a midfrequency dish array, is already the most sensitive telescope of its kind in the world. Since its inauguration in 2018, it has captured the most detailed radio image of the center of the Milky Way and discovered giant radiation bubbles within it.

“The extended MeerKAT will be an even more powerful telescope to study the formation and evolution of galaxies throughout the history of the universe,” says Fernando Camilo, chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO). Francisco Colomer, director of the Joint Institute for Very Long Baseline Interferometry European Research Infrastructure Consortium, says the expansion will “enhance an already impressive instrument.” The new dishes will have a slightly different design from the existing ones and a diameter of 15 meters instead of 13.5 meters. 

MeerKAT will eventually be folded into the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the largest radio telescope in the world; the new dishes, scheduled to come online in 2022, are designed to be part of SKA, says Rob Adam, SARAO’s managing director. SKA will comprise thousands of dishes across Africa and 1 million antennas in Australia and have a collecting area of 1 square kilometer, allowing scientists to look at the universe in unprecedented detail and investigate what happened immediately after the big bang, how galaxies form, and the nature of dark matter.

SKA is now trying to attract funding and new partners for the project, whose initial phase is set to cost about $1 billion. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2021. SKA data may not be available to astronomers until the end of the decade; the expansion of MeerKAT will allow the astronomical community to stay busy in the meantime, Colomer says.

South Africa’s contribution to MeerKAT will be counted toward the country’s pledge for the first phase of SKA, Adam says. Germany’s relationship with SKA is complicated. The country was a member of the SKA Organisation, tasked with overseeing the design phase of the telescope, but pulled out in 2014. The Max Planck Society rejoined the organization last year, but Germany isn’t among the seven member countries that signed a treaty to actually establish the SKA Observatory in August 2019. If it decides to join that group, the German funding for MeerKAT will also count toward the country’s contribution, Adam says.

The additional dishes will increase MeerKAT’s computing requirements by an order of magnitude, but Adams says the extension coincides with a planned update to the telescope’s hardware that capitalizes on advances in computer technology.