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MeerKAT makes its mark

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For years, we have heard about the promise of the MeerKAT radio telescope, which will help us see further into space than we have ever been able to before. With a decades-long build time, every new discovery made by the telescope in its incremental stages highlights the potential once it is completed – and once the full Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is operational.

The first scientific publication based on MeerKAT data has now been released: A study of a magnetar. Entitled “Revival of the magnetar PSR J1622−4950: observations with MeerKAT, Parkes, XMM-Newton, Swift, Chandra, and NuSTAR”, the study covers observations of a star that awoke in 2017 from a three-year slumber.

MeerKAT makes its mark

Magnetars are a very rare subset of neutron stars. Neutron stars are collapsed giant stars formed from supernovas. Sometimes also referred to as pulsars, these stars emit electromagnetic waves and are a very small proportion of the stars making up the Milky Way. Magnetars form an even smaller proportion – only around a dozen have been identified in our entire galaxy.

Magnetars have magnetic fields up to 1 000 times stronger than those of ordinary pulsars. The energy is so large that it almost breaks the star apart, so they tend to be unstable. All magnetars are known to emit X-rays, but only four are known to sometimes also emit radio waves. 

Initially picked up in Australia, where the CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope was monitoring the long-dormant magnetar, the continued observation of the awakening of the star was transferred to the South African team when the Australian telescope underwent a planned month-long maintenance shutdown – despite the fact that MeerKAT was still under construction, with no more than 16 of its eventual 64 radio dishes available.

“For the first time X-ray pulses have been detected from this star, every 4 seconds. The MeerKAT observations proved critical to make sense of the few X-ray photons we captured with NASA’s orbiting telescopes. Put together, the observations reported help us to develop a better picture of the behaviour of matter in unbelievably extreme physical conditions, completely unlike any that can be experienced on Earth,” Dr Fernando Camilo, chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), explains.

The first publication in the scientific literature of astronomical discoveries requiring the use of MeerKAT heralds its arrival into the stable of world-class research instruments, SARAO says. The fact that this study, which has over 200 authors, spanned the globe and used the most high-tech telescopes available, backs up SARAO’s claim.

MeerKAT will eventually be integrated into Phase 1 of the SKA-mid telescope, bringing the total number of dishes on the South African side of the SKA project to 197. Once completed, the SKA will be the most powerful radio telescope on the planet, and if the first published research is anything to go by, we can look forward to gaining amazing new insights into how the universe works.

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