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Today, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a continent-spanning radio astronomy project, announced that Spain has come on board as the collaboration’s 11th member. That boost will help the sometimes-troubled project as, over the next year or so, it forms an international treaty organization and negotiates funding to start construction. Meanwhile, on the wide-open plains of the Karoo, a semiarid desert northeast of Cape Town, South Africa, part of the telescope is already in place in the shape of the newly completed MeerKAT, the largest and most powerful radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.
The last of 64 13.5-meter dishes was installed late last year, and next month South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will officially open the facility. Spread across 8 kilometers, the dishes have a collecting area similar to that of the great workhorse of astrophysics, the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) near Socorro, New Mexico. But with new hardware designs and a powerful supercomputer to process data, the newcomer could have an edge on its 40-year-old northern cousin.
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“For certain studies, it will be the best” in the world, says Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cape Town, which operates MeerKAT. Sensitive across a wide swath of the radio spectrum, MeerKAT can study how hydrogen gas moves into galaxies to fuel star formation. With little experience, South Africa has “a major fantastic achievement,” says Heino Falcke of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
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MeerKAT, which stands for Karoo Array Telescope along with the Afrikaans word for “more,” is one of several precursor instruments for the SKA. . The first phase of the SKA could begin in 2020 at a cost of €798 million. It would add another 133 dishes...
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