New radio telescope to probe dark energy, mysterious radio flashes
South Africa has launched a multimillion-rand global project in radio astronomy that will conduct groundbreaking science in astrophysics, while building on existing excellence in the country.
To be located at the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa site in the Karoo, the Hydrogen Intensity and Real Time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX) telescope will have important synergies with the 64-dish MeerKAT, the country's precursor to the SKA.
Jointly funded by the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) through the National Research Foundation (NRF), HIRAX will be a compact radio telescope array of 1 024 six-metre dishes that will map about a third of the sky during its four years of observation.
Speaking at the launch in Durban this week, Science and Technology Minister, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, said HIRAX will enhance the national system of innovation by building research and innovation capabilities in the country.
"The project will help South Africa develop innovative solutions, particularly in instrumentation and big data processing, directly impacting other economic sectors through technology transfer," she said.
Kubayi-Ngubane also welcomed the project's contribution to human capital development, saying training PhD students would contribute to the achievement of the target of 100 PhDs per million of population by 2030, and inspire the next generation of learners to enter the exciting fields of science and engineering.
The experiment will be managed by UKZN and is a result of a large global collaboration with at least eight South African institutions and another dozen internationally. The researchers will undertake a technical programme that involves building the instrument, carrying out science observations and analysing the raw data.
UKZN Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, said: "The University of KwaZulu-Natal is very proud of its HIRAX team. This team has made a significant impact at a national and international level in terms of the importance and significance of the HIRAX telescope project and its synergies with the SKA initiative. This radio-astronomy telescope, to be erected on the radio-quiet SKA site, aims to describe the effects of dark energy on the distribution of galaxies. The project is led from UKZN by a dynamic young team of astronomers that are breaking new ground and leveraging the SKA investment to grow a new generation of young astronomers in KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa."
HIRAX will be able to determine the characteristics of dark energy during a critical period in our universe, between seven billion and 11 billion years ago, when dark energy became the dominant component in the universe, causing it to expand at an accelerated rate.
The main HIRAX array, combined with small arrays in partnering African countries, will be able to localise mysterious radio flashes called Fast Radio Bursts (FRB) within their host galaxies, a feat never achieved before. This will be a vital first step in determining the cause of these bursts.
HIRAX Principal Investigator, Professor Kavilan Moodley, who is based at UKZN, said: "The HIRAX project is exciting because we are working with a dynamic group of students and scientists that work on all aspects of the project, from building the telescope and analysing the data to scientific interpretation. We are aiming to use our competitive advantage of being on the excellent SKA SA Karoo site to have an impact on the study of dark energy and fast radio bursts."
The project will work with industry to develop new technology and innovation such as telescope hardware and big data analysis tools.
Words: Bavani Naidoo