The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory is helping astronomers everywhere find answers to fundamental questions about the universe. It will also reward South Africa for its gutsy leadership. “You’ve got to be globally excellent,” Rob Adam, Director of the Observatory, tells Brunswick’s Marina Bidoli and Carlton Wilkinson.
From the start of his career, Dr. Rob Adam’s life spanned two worlds: politics and science. In his 20s, under apartheid in South Africa, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, after nine months of detention without trial, for his participation in the underground activities of the then-banned African National Congress. He made good use of the time, furthering his education in theoretical physics. With the fall of apartheid, Dr. Adam found himself in President Nelson Mandela’s new administration, working on science and technology initiatives. It was here that he helped develop an approach to scientific development to attract international investment, stimulate the national economy and put South Africa on the global astronomy map.
Fast forward three decades and today Dr. Adam is the Director of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), the country’s participating organization in the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an ambitious project that will help astronomers find answers to some of the most fundamental questions of the universe, such as how galaxies evolved and whether there is other life somewhere out there.
Fourteen member countries, more than 100 organizations and many of the world’s top scientists and engineers are involved in the SKA, which is expected to cost €2 billion ($2.2 billion) over the next decade. The installation will comprise two arrays—nearly 200 mid-frequency radio dishes in the remote Karoo region of South Africa, with almost another 131,000 low-frequency antennas in the outback of Western Australia, making it the world’s largest scientific instrument. Eventually the project aims to expand further, to achieve a composite dish-surface area measuring a square kilometer, including 2,000 dishes extending into African partner countries across the continent. Powered by two supercomputers, it will be at least 50 times more sensitive and 10,000 times faster than any existing radio telescope today, allowing for the detection of extremely faint signals from outer space.
The SKA is part of a wave of large international projects to study the stars, a group that includes the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope. Now in position a million miles from Earth and undergoing tests and calibration, the Webb is expected to send its first clear images mid-2022.
Meanwhile, here on Earth, SKA is already delivering results. For the past three years, huge torrents of data have been streaming out of MeerKAT, an array of 64 dishes built as a “proof of concept” that will be incorporated into the SKA. In January, SARAO released an image of unprecedented clarity and depth, produced from MeerKAT data, that has thrilled astronomers worldwide, showing little-understood cosmological phenomena around the massive black hole at our galaxy’s core. The lead author of the study that published the image, Dr. Ian Heywood, from the University of Oxford, Rhodes University and SARAO, said it was evidence of the massive leap forward that MeerKAT represents. SARAO chief scientist Dr Fernando Camilo concurred that MeerKAT’s “remarkable discoveries in one of the most intensively studied corners of the radio sky” was testament to the skill and dedication of South African colleagues who had built the telescope.
In the wake of that study’s publication, Marina Bidoli and Carlton Wilkinson spoke to Dr. Adam about what the SKA and the activities of the SARAO mean for South Africa and the world.