South Africa is launching its first automated optical telescope on Friday in the province of Northern Cape, the headquarters of the country’s space exploration project.
The new multimillion-rand MeerLICHT telescope in Sutherland will be specifically linked to the MeerKAT radio telescope array near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.
Engineers say the MeerLICHT will offer astronomers an unprecedented view of the stars.
Unlike its bigger brother SALT (Southern African Large Telescope), the MeerLICHT is meant to give astronomers a large field of view and match observations with the MeerKAT.
While SALT conducts spectroscopy – analysing light in different segments – MeerLICHT conducts all its investigations in the visible light spectrum.
MeerKAT conducts its investigations in the radio frequency spectrum, enabling scientists to examine the cosmos in greater detail than optical telescopes might allow.
“MeerKAT has a very large field of view and once MeerKAT starts science observations, we will be searching the entire field of view all the time for new transients,” MeerLICHT principal investigator Professor Patrick Woudt told News24.
“We don’t know beforehand where such objects will appear in the large field of view and so it is necessary to cover the same field of view in the optical (at the same time) if we want to identify an optical counterpart to a newly-detected radio transients,” said Woudt, head of the astronomy department at UCT.
He said that the MeerLICHT may help astronomers understand the puzzling phenomenon of fast radio bursts (FRBs).
These appear suddenly and disappear within 100 milliseconds, making it difficult to examine them thoroughly.
MeerLICHT is a completely robotic instrument and, at 110 million pixels, is the largest scientific CCD camera that can be made
In a top-end smartphone, a 20-megapixel camera can produce a 2.45MB compressed image, and at 110 megapixels, a compressed image could come in at 22MB.
The uncompressed images from the MeerLICHT, however, come in at 350MB, include positional data and up to one million stars per image, making for superb study data.
The MeerLICHT will receive its pointing data from the MeerKAT and will be launched with partners from the UK and Netherlands.