On Friday, 25 May, coinciding with Africa Day 2018, a new telescope was inaugurated at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) near Sutherland that will be the "eye" of the MeerKAT radio array, the country's precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

 

MeerLICHT, which means "more light" in Dutch, is an optical telescope that will simultaneously scan the Southern Skies together with the MeerKAT. This will create a truly unique combination where astronomers will be studying stars and galaxies in two parts of the spectrum at the same time.

 

The project is a collaboration between South Africa, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, involving researchers from six different institutes from the three partner countries. It was decided to launch it on Africa Day to recognise and celebrate both our incredible African skies and the important partnerships between Europe and Africa that have led to this innovation.

 

MeerLICHT is a good example of projects aligned to the Multi-wavelength Astronomy strategy which was approved by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in 2015.

 

The aim of the strategy is to forge closer ties between radio, optical and gamma ray astronomy communities and facilities, enabling them to work together to achieve common scientific objectives and develop human capital.

 

Speaking at the inauguration of the telescope on Friday, the DST Director-General, Dr Phil Mjwara, said South Africa had targeted astronomy as a scientific field in order to showcase the country's research abilities on the global stage, to bolster technological development in telecommunication, big data and large-scale computing, and as a field well suited to bringing science to the people.

 

"MeerLICHT is also expected to play an important role in the astronomical education of people in southern Africa. The project team also hopes that the MeerLICHT project can grow into a stepping stone to allow other southern African countries to share in humanity's fascination with the night sky," said Dr Mjwara.

 

Among the chief scientific goals of MeerLICHT is the study of stellar explosions, which need to be investigated intensely before they fade away. "The study of exploding stars across the universe will gain a whole new dimension," said the University of Cape Town's Prof. Patrick Woudt, co-principal investigator of the MeerLICHT telescope.

 

The MeerLICHT telescope was purpose-built to combine excellent resolution with a wide field of view. It sees more than 13 times the full moon, while being able to discern objects one million times fainter than is possible with the naked eye.

 

The telescope achieves this amazing combination by coupling a 65 cm diameter main mirror with a single 100 megapixel detector which is a full 10 cm x 10 cm in size. This is the largest single detector in use in optical astronomy anywhere in the world. The telescope was designed and built in the Netherlands before being shipped to South Africa.

 

"We started work on the technical definition of this telescope back in 2012, and it is fantastic to see what amazing views it produces," said co-principal investigator Prof. Paul Groot of Radboud University.

 

The link with the MeerKAT radio array has astronomers across the world excited about the new combination. "For us it was the reason to join this consortium. Flashes of radio emission known as Fast Radio Bursts may now be 'caught in the act' by both MeerKAT and MeerLICHT," explained the University of Manchester's Prof. Ben Stappers, MeerLICHT collaborator and leader of the MeerTRAP project. "Hopefully we can finally determine the origin of these enigmatic flashes."

 

Co-principal investigator Prof. Rob Fender, of the Universities of Oxford and Cape Town, was excited about the start of operations of the new telescope. "This is the beginning of a new phase of coordinated multi-wavelength research into the most extreme astrophysical events," he said.

 

Prof. Rudy Wijnands of the University of Amsterdam added: "Besides extreme astrophysics, typically associated with black holes and neutron stars, we will also study normal stars, in particular those that produce strong flares. The simultaneous optical-radio monitoring of these stars will allow us to investigate the impact of such flares on the habitability of the planets around them."

 

The MeerLICHT telescope will be housed at the Sutherland Observatory run by the South African Astronomical Observatory. "MeerLICHT directly links the whole optical observatory, and especially our 10-metre SALT telescope, to the MeerKAT array," said Dr. David Buckley of the SAAO. "It fits perfectly in our strategy to turn the Sutherland Observatory into an efficient transient machine to study the dynamic universe."

 

 

Contact information

 

Prof. Paul Groot, MeerLICHT Principal Investigator

Department of Astrophysics, Radboud University, the Netherlands

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+31 644646290

 

Prof. Patrick Woudt, MeerLICHT Principal Investigator

Department of Astronomy, University of Cape Town, South Africa

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+27 730872128

 

Prof. Rob Fender, MeerLICHT Principal Investigator

Physics Department, University of Oxford, UK

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+44 1865613973

 

Prof. Ben Stappers, MeerLICHT Collaborator

School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Manchester, UK

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+44 1612754187

 

Dr. David Buckley

South African Astronomical Observatory, South Africa

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+27 214470025

 

Prof. Rudy Wijnands

Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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+31 205257206

 

Link to supplementary materials (images, leaflets, brochure and pictures of the telescope):

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/fxijky9jg1x28ic/AADulXdgedWil0ps0ItPXA1ya?dl=0