A huge new telescope array in South Africa has just returned its stunning first image, giving us a glimpse into the distant universe. Called MeerKAT, this radio telescope array currently has 16 dishes spread in the Northern Cape. Eventually, this will be upgraded to 64 dishes.
But this is all just a precursor to the much larger Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will eventually use an incredible 2,000 dishes across 3,000 kilometers (1,870 miles) in Southern Africa by 2030, and a further half a million antennas in Australia, to peer into the cosmos.
For MeerKAT, this first image revealed 1,300 galaxies in a section of the night sky where only 70 galaxies had been spotted before. Each of the dishes receives light from the distant galaxies and focuses them into their receiver.
Some of the galaxies, like one seen 200 million light-years away, are in the process of intense star formation, with hydrogen gas being used up to create new stellar objects. Others reveal powerful black holes firing two visible jets of electrons at close to the speed of light in either direction.
On the right are galaxies with large black holes at their center. Bottom left is a galaxy going through intense star formation. MeerKAT
“South Africa has already demonstrated its excellent science and engineering skills by designing and building MeerKAT,” said Naledi Pandor, South Africa Minister of Science and Technology, in a statement. “This telescope, which is predominantly a locally designed and built instrument, shows the world that South Africa can compete in international research, engineering, technology, and science.”
MeerKAT is funded by the South African Government and by 2017 it will be up to its full complement of 64 dishes, each measuring 13.5 meters (45 feet) across. More dishes equals a better resolving power, so expect more images of distant galaxies like this in the near future.