New radio telescope images Galactic Center

World’s most sensitive radio telescope will one day be part of larger, intercontinental facility.

A new radio telescope described as the most sensitive of its kind in the world has captured an image of the Milky Way’s Galactic Center.

Located in South Africa, MEERKAT, an interferometer made up of 64 separate dishes designed to produce detailed maps of normally invisible regions of space, captured a panoramic view of the the Galactic Center using infrared, radio, and X-ray wavelengths, which enabled it to penetrate gas and dust that gets in the way of conventional telescopes.

The stunning image shows the sources of magnetized filament structures close to the galaxy’s central supermassive black hole, an image that could help scientists decipher the filaments’ origins.

MEERKAT is part of an even larger project, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a radio telescope that will be linked with 130 dishes in South Africa and as many as 130,000 antennas in Australia. The folding of MEERKAT into SKA is expected to begin in 2020.

Actual scientific experiments with the South-African funded $331 million MEERKAT are scheduled to begin in approximately two months.

Two MEERKAT research projects are already in progress. The first will use the telescope’s full capacity to study hydrogen levels in galaxies. Scientists believe data from this project will provide crucial insight into the universe’s history.

The second project will study fast radio bursts and similar, transient phenomena that are currently not well understood.

Future plans call for eight large survey projects to operate using MEERKAT, with each research team given a total of 1,000 hours on the telescope over a period of five years.

For many astronomers, engineers, and data scientists who would otherwise have to use instruments based in the US, Europe, or Australia for their research projects, MEERKAT provides an alternate, ideal option.

“With this new instrument, South Africa stands poised to be at the forefront of astronomy and data science. The anticipated success of the SKA relies heavily on MEERKAT,” noted SKA organization director-general Phil Diamond.

Michael Kramer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, praised the early data returned by MEERKAT as “better than we expected.”

An article on MEERKAT’s imaging of the Galactic Center and plans for the telescope’s future has been published in the journal Nature.

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