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SKA’s the limit: SA telescope shows us what happens when ...

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Astronomy

SKA’s the limit: SA telescope shows us what happens when galaxies collide

Discovery is good sign of how the Square Kilometre Array will help us understand the workings of the universe

Senior science reporter
An artist’s impression of a hydroxyl maser. Inside a galaxy merger are hydroxyl molecules, composed of one atom of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. When one molecule absorbs a photon at 18cm wavelength, it emits two photons of the same wavelength. When molecular gas is very dense, typically when two galaxies merge, this emission gets very bright and can be detected by radio telescopes such as the MeerKAT.
SHEDDING LIGHT An artist’s impression of a hydroxyl maser. Inside a galaxy merger are hydroxyl molecules, composed of one atom of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. When one molecule absorbs a photon at 18cm wavelength, it emits two photons of the same wavelength. When molecular gas is very dense, typically when two galaxies merge, this emission gets very bright and can be detected by radio telescopes such as the MeerKAT.
Image: IDIA/LADUMA using data from NASA/StSci/SKAO/MolView

An amazing discovery by the MeerKAT telescope in SA has taken the astronomy world by storm as it will shed light on the evolution of the universe over time.

It also bodes well for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) which made progress during the pandemic and of which the MeerKAT is a precursor.

The discovery, made by chance during lockdown, is a powerful radio-wave laser, called a megamaser.

This is just the beginning of unexpected discoveries, because MeerKAT is such a powerful instrument. And it’s an incredible adventure. It’s a privilege to be in astronomy at this time.
Dr Carolina Ödman, associate director of UWC’s development and outreach department

At about 5-billion light years from Earth, it is the most distant megamaser of its sort ever detected.

Megamasers are usually created when two galaxies violently collide, resulting in concentrated beams of light shooting out when the gas they contain becomes very dense.

The discovery was made by an international team of astronomers led by Dr Marcin Glowacki, who previously worked at the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy and the University of the Western Cape.

The megamaser has been named Nkalakatha.

UWC student Zolile Tibane, who chose the name because it means “big boss”, won a competition to name the new discovery.

Glowacki, who now works at Curtin University in Australia, said the megamaser was detected on the first night of a survey involving more than 3,000 hours of observations by the MeerKAT telescope.

“It’s impressive that, with just a single night of observations, we’ve already found a record-breaking megamaser. It shows just how good the telescope is,” he said.

Dr Carolina Ödman, associate director of UWC’s development and outreach department, said of the discovery, “This is just the beginning of unexpected discoveries, because MeerKAT is such a powerful instrument. And it’s an incredible adventure. It’s a privilege to be in astronomy at this time.”

Speaking to Sunday Times Daily last week, Dr Adrian Tiplady from SARAO (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory) said the discovery “once again shows off the globally recognised scientific and technical excellence of MeerKAT, the workforce behind the instrument and its user community”.

He added: “This discovery is a serendipitous one, resulting from observations taken for another key science programme — Laduma — which will no doubt produce cutting edge scientific results in the future. It reconfirms that there is still much to explore and understand about the universe. The more we discover with MeerKAT, the more we realise how much more there is to discover, ultimately, with the SKA.”

He added, “The multinational nature of the SKA project means we were already well suited for the ‘work from home’ environment that was thrust upon us at the onset of Covid. The SKA construction proposal was formally approved by the SKA Observatory Council midway through 2021, and multiple contracts have already been awarded in SA and with international partners. A major SKA civil infrastructure procurement process is under way in SA.”

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