DG Phil Mjwara at launch of MeerLICHT telescope. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF
DG Phil Mjwara at launch of MeerLICHT telescope. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF

A new telescope dubbed the "eye of the MeerKAT array" has been launched at the Southern African Astronomical Observatory near Sutherland, a development that is expected to provide new insight into fleeting astronomical events like exploding stars and fast radio bursts.

The MeerLICHT optical telescope will simultaneously scan the southern skies with the MeerKAT radio telescope near Carnarvon, giving scientists the unique ability to study stars and galaxies with two parts of the electromagnetic spectrum at the same time.

MeerKAT is a 64-dish array that is the precursor to the Square Kilometre Array, which will be the world’s biggest and most sensitive radio telescope once it is completed.

The MeerLICHT project is a South African, Dutch and UK collaboration that dovetails with SA’s multi-wavelength astronomy strategy, Department of Science and Technology director-general Phil Mjwara said at the launch of the telescope on Friday.

"Through this strategy we hope to take maximum advantage of SA’s historical strengths in the area of astronomy, its geographic advantage, the clear Karoo skies, and engineering and scientific base of its people," he said.

MeerLICHT, which means "more light" in Dutch, was built in the Netherlands and shipped to the observatory near Sutherland last year.

The telescope combines high resolution with a wide field of view: it can see objects that are a million times fainter than the human eye can detect, over an area of the sky more than three times wider than the size of the full moon. It has a 65cm diameter main mirror with a 100 megapixel detector.

Scientists will be studying fast, explosive events detected in the radio spectrum. "We have no idea what is going on with fast radio bursts, and have a whole slew of theories," said MeerLICHT project director Steven Bloemen. "We expect to find a lot of new things".

MeerLICHT will take an image of the section of the sky being observed by MeerKAT every minute, producing a deluge of data that will be analysed at a data processing unit at the University of Cape Town.

Mjwara said MeerLICHT was expected to add to the benefits astronomy had brought to the small rural town of Southerland since the construction of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), boosting tourism and creating jobs.

"Before SALT about 250 tourists visited the town each year: now the average is 12,000. This has spurred economic development in the remote area, with the establishment of many new guesthouses and related businesses," he said.

He noted that before SALT Sutherland boasted just two guesthouses; today there are 40, and 18 farms offer tourist accommodation.

SALT was inaugurated by then-president Thabo Mbeki in November 2005.

The Southern African Astronomical Observatory had also established a community outreach centre offering a safe, supportive environment in which children can study, use computers and get help with their homework. The centre is also available to adults.