Sutherland's new telescope brings space even closer

25 May 2018 - 10:05
By Tanya Farber
The MeerLICHT telescope’s view of the universe.
Image: UCT The MeerLICHT telescope’s view of the universe.

Imagine the spectacle of stars exploding across our vast universe‚ burning bright then fading away.

For six intensive years‚ scientists have been working on the technology to bring that exquisite show from nature to the human eye‚ and on Friday the equipment to do just that was finally launched in the Northern Cape.

It will reveal images to us that are a million times fainter than what we can see with the naked eye.

Appropriately named MeerLICHT (Dutch for “more light”)‚ the state-of-the-art optical telescope was launched under the big skies of Sutherland‚ where the landscape stretches for miles with nothing to interfere with this delicate process.

It is a sister to the MeerKAT‚ a radio array telescope‚ and by combining their optical and radio capabilities astronomers will be able to study stars and galaxies in two parts of the spectrum simultaneously.

The MeerKAT is the precursor to the revolutionary Square Kilometre Array‚ and according to a statement released by the University of Cape Town‚ which is involved in the projects‚ the MeerLICHT telescope was purpose-built to combine excellent resolution with a wide field of view.

The MeerLICHT telescope.
Image: UCT The MeerLICHT telescope.

“It sees [an area of sky] more than 13 times the full moon while being able to resolve 1km on the moon and seeing objects one million times fainter than is possible with the naked eye‚” according to the team behind it.

The telescope “achieves this amazing combination” by coupling a 65cm-diameter main mirror with a single 100-megapixel detector‚ which is a full 10cm x 10cm. This is the largest single detector used in optical astronomy anywhere in the world. The telescope was designed and built in the Netherlands‚ then shipped to South Africa.

UCT professor Patrick Woudt‚ co-principal investigator of the telescope‚ said: “The study of exploding stars across the universe will gain a whole new dimension.”

His colleague‚ Pau Groot from Radboud University said: “We started work on the technical definition of this telescope back in 2012‚ and it is fantastic to see what amazing views it produces.”

He added that images full of stars in the central regions of our Milky Way are “mind-blowing and illustrate the magnificent detail of this new telescope”.

MeerLICHT has been installed at the Sutherland Observatory and will be run by the South African Astronomical Observatory.

“It fits perfectly in our strategy to turn the Sutherland Observatory into an efficient transient machine to study the dynamic universe‚” said the observatory’s Dr David Buckley.