On Saturday 16 July 2016 the MeerKat radio telescope, currently under construction in South Africa, formally commissioned its first 16 dishes. The same day, astronomers released the first image taken by these 16 dishes: the image revealed 1300 galaxies in a small region of space where only 70 galaxies had previously been detected.
These 16 MeerKat dishes represent only one quarter of the final contingent: the complete telescope will contain 64 dishes. And the 64-dish MeerKat will be only one element of the multi-component Square Kilometer Array (SKA).
This first image from a quarter-completed Meerkat gives a hint at what a tremendously powerful instrument the SKA is going to be!
A “first light” image from the MeerKat radio telescope. The central image is a montage. The two right-hand panels show galaxies containing central supermassive black holes.(Credit: MeerKat/SKA South Africa)
Over the next few decades radio telescopes are poised to become perhaps the key technology in the cosmologists’ armory. I write about ALMA, the world’s most complex ground-based telescope, in an article to appear in Patrick Moore’s Yearbook of Astronomy 2013. ALMA – the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array – will produce some stunning science starting in 2013. Looking slightly further ahead, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) will be one of the great science instruments of the 21st century. Radio telescopes such as these will transform our understanding of the universe.
SKA, which will be based on sites in Africa and Australia, won’t be fully operational until 2024 at the earliest. But even before then the steps towards SKA will generate powerful instruments for radio astronomy. On 5 October 2012, for example, the Australian Minister for Science and Research officially opened ASKAP: the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder.
A few of the ASKAP dishes (Credit: Charles Brewer)
ASKAP has 36 12m-diameter dishes spread over 30km2. It will observe between 700MHz and 1.8GHz. It’s taking some baby steps towards realising the full SKA instrument. Even those baby steps are impressive, though: ASKAP outperforms the Very Large Array in terms of sensitivity and field of view. Observing time on ASKAP has already been fully booked up for the next five years. Expect to hear a lot more from ALMA and ASKAP.