The ambitious Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project has started to bear fruit. Despite being only a quarter of its final size, the MeerKAT radio telescope under construction in the Karoo region in South Africa has already delivered a fresh perspective on the cosmos. MeerKAT's First Light image using 16 of its eventual 64 dishes has revealed more than 1,300 galaxies in a small patch of sky where only 70 were previously known. And the MeerKAT is just the first step towards the multinational SKA project's goal of building the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world.

Each white dot in the MeerKAT First Light image represents a galaxy in the distant universe. In one corner, scientists are able to point out a "Fanaroy-Riley Class 2" object, a massive black hole that's spewing jets of electrons at a rate approaching the speed of light. The entire image covers an area less than 0.01 percent of the celestial sphere.

The zoomed-in image on the lower left shows a galaxy abut 200 million light years away, where hydrogen gas is being used up to form a huge number of stars; the two images on the right show galaxies with massive black holes at their centers(Credit: SKA South Africa)

The First Light image was presented to celebrate Array Release 1 (AR1), the first stage of the MeerKAT telescope that includes 16 dish antennas measuring 13.5 m (44.3 ft) in diameter. All 64 dishes are scheduled for completion by the end of 2017. Construction is being undertaken in phases, which allows the system to be verified, tested, and put to use while further sections are still being completed.

"Based on the results being shown today, we are confident that after all 64 dishes are in place, MeerKAT will be the world's leading telescope of its kind until the advent of SKA," says Justin Jonas, Chief Technologist at SKA South Africa.

MeerKAT is part of a much larger network: the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). This huge network will bring together another 133 dishes in South Africa as well as over 130,000 low-frequency antennas in Australia, enabling the universe to be scanned in unprecedented detail thousands of times faster than current technology.

Once MeerKAT is complete, construction on the remainder of the SKA is expected to begin in 2018.

Source: SKA Africa

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