A multimillion-rand radio telescope project that will map out a third of the sky during its four years of observation was launched at the Umhlanga Coastlands Hotel on Friday.
The Hydrogen Intensity and Real Time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX) will be led by young astronomers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and will be located at the South African Square Kilometre Array (SKA) site in the Karoo, Western Cape.
HIRAX – a compact radio telescope array of 1,024 six-metre dishes – will primarily study dark energy and Frequent Radio Bursts (FRB). It will be used in synergy with the 64-dish MeerKAT, the country’s precursor to the SKA.
Dark energy is a theoretical unknown force that confounds gravity at large scales of the universe. FRBs are intense blasts of high energy that last for milliseconds.
Speaking at the launch, Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said the project was “a perfect example of the willingness of scientists from different parts of the world to learn and understand the universe through scientific tools”.
The project would break down barriers and create equity within the astrophysics field by providing training through all phases of its implementation, said Kubayi-Ngubane.
“Students involved in this project will be ideally placed to lead the next generation of world-class science projects. I was pleased to note that to date the project has trained five PhDs and five MSc and honours students,” she said.
Much of the hardware for the project would be developed and procured from local engineering firms, thereby growing the local manufacturing capacity in radio astronomy technologies.
“The data sets developed by HIRAX will lead to partnerships with the IT industry in the development of new algorithms for Big Data challenges.”
The project was a good demonstration of how the department’s five-year strategic plan was being realised, said Kubayi-Ngubane.
“Countries that have developed at a faster rate have always been countries with a strong innovation culture driven by investments in science and technology. Such investments are important in retaining and attracting the most talented researchers.”
The project is a global collaboration between eight South African institutions and 12 international ones. Researchers will build the telescope and carry out scientific observations using raw data.
Professor Deresh Ramjugernath, UKZN’s deputy vice-chancellor for research, said the launch of the HIRAX was another way to position the university according to relevance in research.
“This is not just about looking at the stars and imagining,” said Ramjugernath.
“There is a high possibility that the science here has a high socioeconomic impact.”
The project was also a way to place the university at the forefront of Big Data informatics and cement the role of the African continent in the fourth industrial revolution, said Ramjugernath.
UKZN and the department of science and technology, through the National Research Foundation, funded the project.