The South African Square Kilometer Array (SKA) has partnered with the Dutch optical telescope MeerLICHT to create the world’s first combined radio and optical telescope – a kind of ‘eyes and ears’ approach to astronomy – that could provide huge advances in both astronomy and astrophysics.
Launched last week, the device forms part of SKA’s project in the remote Karoo desert, which will be the world’s most powerful radio telescope system. The project combines the new optical telescope MeerLICHT — Dutch for ‘more light’ — with the recently-completed 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope, located 200 kilometers away.
“We are listening and looking at the sky at the same time — that is a completely novel concept in astronomy worldwide,” Paul Groot, from Radboud University in the Netherlands, told AFP. “This is the eyes, with the MeerKAT being the ears as a radio telescope. It is fantastic to see what amazing views it produces.”
Previously, astronomers had to use a two-step approach: wait for a cosmic incident to be picked up by a radio telescope, and then carry out optic observations afterwards. But the new combination will enable simultaneous study of cosmic events as they occur.
A joint team of South African, Dutch, and British scientists have been working on the project for six years.
“It is the first time you have a telescope tracking a radio telescope: so, if there are discoveries made, you will be able to follow up,” Phil Mjwara, director-general in the South African Ministry of Science and Technology, told reporters.
The optical telescope, built in the Netherlands and shipped to South Africa, uses a main mirror that is 65 centimetres in diameter and a single 100-megapixel detector measuring 10cm x 10cm. It is housed in a white dome-shaped building made of carbon fibre to protect it against temperature fluctuations in the Karoo desert.
Among the priorities for MeerLICHT, which cost about U.S.$1.1 million, is the study of black holes, neutron stars, and stellar explosions, which must be scrutinised quickly before they fade away.
“The study of exploding stars across the universe will gain a whole new dimension,” said University of Cape Town professor Patrick Woudt, a senior scientist working on the telescope.