The radio-quiet zone begins about a half an hour drive away from this remote, desolate place in the Karoo desert, in South Africas Northern Cape. The use of mobile phones and laptops is strictly forbidden. A few trees and shrubs dot the ochre landscape; occasionally, a tiny scorpion scurries away in the blazing sun. What holds your eye, though, are the giant dishes.
This is MeerKAT 64 radio dishes spread across eight square kilometres, each 13.5 metres in diameter and on their supports as tall as a five-storey building. Together they form a single radio telescope. MeerKAT means "more KAT" (the Karoo Array Telescope was its seven-dish forerunner), and astronomers use it to study the radio waves emitted by strange but little-understood objects in distant space. Because phones and other gadgets also emit radio waves, they are strictly off limits, to make sure these antennae pick up only signals of cosmic origin.
Big as it is, MeerKAT is just a start, the precursor to what will become the worlds largest radio telescope: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Over the next decade, SKA will add another 133 dishes, and the Karoo antennae will work in tandem with as many as 133,000 smaller antennae to be installed in Australia.
SKAs aim is to help scientists understand how our universe works: to observe how hydrogen gas is assembled into galaxies and gives birth to new stars, and to track down the sources of radio waves arriving on Earth. Many come from pulsars the dead, rapidly spinning, ultra-dense leftover cores of massive stars. Then there are the mysterious Fast Radio Bursts brief flashes in the sky with the power of 500 million suns that have puzzled scientists since their discovery just over a decade ago.
One of MeerKATs first tasks when it opened in June 2018 was to snap the closest-ever image of our Milky Ways galactic centre, home to the super-massive black hole Sagittarius A. Located some 25,000 light years away, its a region in space full of interstellar gas and dust. Optical telescopes are of little use here, as visible light is blocked. Radio waves, however, glide right through.
MeerKATs picture shows the black hole like a sweltering oven. The red and orange colours of the image are misleading, however, because humans cant see radio waves. The picture has nothing to do with fire, and the visualisation of the radio waves could have been done in any colour, says Fernando Camilo, the chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory.
The round area just to the right of the centre of the image is Sagittarius A. Elsewhere are areas of star formation (the bright spot to the right, and the hourglass shape to the left), and the remnants of supernovas stars that have exploded and died (far left). The thin lines snaking away in all directions, known as "fine filamentary threads" remain a mystery, however. They have not been found anywhere else in our galaxy, though, so they may have some connection to the black hole.
When SKA is fully operational which is expected to happen by 2030 it will be able to peer 14 billion years back to the moments after the Big Bang, and provide new insights about supernovas, black holes and the infant universe.
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