Operating at only one quarter of its full capacity, the MeerKAT telescope array found 1300 galaxies in a region of the universe where only 70 were known to exist previously.
Artist's impression of MeerKAT. Image: SKA.
On Saturday night astronomers at the South African MeerKAT radio telescope array fired up 16 of its recently completed dishes and released the first ever image from what is slated to become the world's most powerful radio telescope. The initial results were incredibly promising: operating with only one quarter of the 64 dishes that will eventually comprise MeerKAT, the telescope was able to find 1300 galaxies in a small corner of the universe where only 70 galaxies were known to exist previously.
MeerKAT, which is located roughly 350 miles north of Cape Town, is something of a proof of concept for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) which is slated to come online in the 2020s. When the 3000 dishes that comprise SKA go live they will comprise the most sensitive radio telescope in the world, but for now this illustrious title will be claimed by MeerKAT, whose 64 dishes will be incorporated into the SKA array when they're finished next year.
Even operating with only a quarter of its eventual 64 dishes, MeerKAT's Saturday evening trial run established the radio telescope as the most powerful in the southern hemisphere according to SKA's chief scientist Fernando Camilo. By the time all 64 dishes are completed next year, Camilo claimed MeerKAT will be the most powerful telescope in the world.
As one of the two main clusters of radio telescopes comprising SKA (the other cluster is located in Australia), MeerKAT will help astronomers study everything from black holes and dark energy to the development of the early universe some 13 billion years ago. The first image from MeerKAT depicts several galaxies with massive black holes at their center, as well as a galaxy that is roughly 200 million light years away.
Scientists and astronomers are already chomping at the bit to get a chance to put this powerful tool to use, and nearly 500 scientific groups from over 40 countries have booked time on the telescope between now and 2022.