Funding boost will enable scientists to look at the dawn of time, from the Karoo
THE Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project has received a $9.5m boost that will enable scientists to peer back to the dawn of time.
The US National Science Foundation has made the funding available to the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionisation Array (HERA), which is part of SKA.
The funding will allow the HERA project to increase the number of radio dishes from 19 to 220 by 2018.
SKA South Africa senior astronomer Dr Gianni Bernardi said the dishes would allow researchers to understand the formation and evolution of the very first stars and galaxies in the universe.
"There are a lot of things that we may be able to learn … [including] what were the first galaxies that were formed [and] how massive they were," Bernardi said on Wednesday.
An even better scenario was possible, "which could tell us about the nature of dark matter", he said.
The HERA project could provide information on when the first black holes formed in the universe or whether giant stars ever existed in the 14-billion-year-old universe.
Bernardi said very little was known about the period between 300,000 years and 1-billion years after the Big Bang.
He said astrophysicists believed that the best way to find out more was to look at neutral hydrogen gas in the universe, and the best way to measure the gas was to build sensitive radio telescopes that could detect the gas distribution back in time.
Rob Adam, SKA South Africa’s MD, said in a statement that the "MeerKAT will study evolved galaxies in the later Universe, while HERA will peer back nearer to the dawn of time, when the first stars and galaxies were being formed. In this way they address complementary scientific questions."
The HERA project is located only a few kilometres from the MeerKAT radio telescope, which began initial science operations in July.
HERA dishes operate at a low radio frequency, and according to Bernardi, the increase from 19 to 220 dishes would have enough sensitivity to allow astronomers to make the first measurements of how the fraction of neutral hydrogen changed with cosmic time.
He said its growth in the future would include more dishes, which are about 14m in diameter.
Each antenna will point in a fixed direction, as they do not have to move around, and do not require expensive moving parts.
Project engineer Kathryn Rosie, who is responsible for HERA’s construction in the Karoo, said HERA was a truly Karoo-based project because the construction materials were sourced and fabricated from within SA — predominantly from the Carnarvon area.
The project is being led by the University of California Berkeley, in collaboration with partner teams from the US, UK, Italy and SA. Rhodes University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Wits are participating.
HERA is one of a number of low-frequency telescopes, including the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in Australia and the Low Frequency Array (Lofar) in the Netherlands, that are pathfinders for SKA1-LOW, to be located in Australia.