South Africa Could Become Brightest Star In Radio Astronomy

STELLENBOSCH- According to one of the most celebrated astrophysicists in the world, South Africa could play a leading role in the development of radio astronomy.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, best known for her discovery of pulsars, gave a lecture at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study on the evening of 19 February 2014. Burnell spoke of the birth, life and death of pulsars and the significance of the Square Kilometer Array project in South Africa.

Pulsars are pulsating radio stars that are born in the dark molecular clouds of our galaxy. These stars have a very short life span in astronomical terms. Their short life span is a result of their high energy output. Energy is released from the nuclear reactions that take place at the core of these stars.

According to Burnell, pulsars are “the astrophysical equivalent of a young man in a sports car, they are very bright, very flashy… but they don’t last very long”.

In 2012 the SKA Organization announced that the Square Kilometer Array project will be shared between South Africa and Australia. The SKA will be located in the Karoo and Western Australia.

These locations were chosen for their large empty areas and low population density. A low population density reduces the amount of radio interference from mobile phones that can “swamp the signals of distant galaxies,” Burnell explained.

SKA radio telescopes will be used to pick up radio signals from distant galaxies and pulsars. According to Burnell pulsars, also known as neutron stars, “spin like lighthouses and sweep radio booms in the sky”.

The Square Kilometer Array will play a vital role in the future of radio astronomy. When completed, the SKA will be nearly 50 times more powerful than any other radio telescope.

The SKA will enable scientists to see all the pulsars that point to the earth and pick up their radio signals. Greater knowledge of pulsars will allow scientists to test Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity with experiential relativity.

The optimal arrangement of the SKA radio dishes is a spiral pattern with the distance increasing between each radio dish. In future these satellites will reach parts of Ghana, Zimbabwe and Kenya, making Africa the leader in radio astronomy.

SKA will play a significant role in the development of South African science and technology. The final foundation for the MeerKAT telescope antenna in the Karoo was poured on 11 February 2014.

The South African Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom, says the completion of the first antenna and ultimately the MeerKAT telescope will be fundamental to the success of the whole SKA project.


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