Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy

‘Transient machine’ MeerLICHT inaugurated in South Africa

25 May 2018

On Friday May 25, the MeerLICHT telescope has been inaugurated at the Sutherland Observatory, South Africa. MeerLICHT (‘more light’ in Dutch) is an optical telescope that will be an ‘eye of the MeerKAT radio array’, the country’s precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Together MeerLICHT and MeerKAT will simultaneously be scanning the Southern Skies. This creates a truly unique combination where astronomers will always be studying stars and galaxies in two parts of the spectrum at the same time.

A Constellation of Galaxies. Galaxies are islands of stars in a vast and empty Universe. Galaxies often cluster together, like the Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds and the Andromeda Nebula. The Fornax cluster, 60 million light years away, is one of the nearest clusters of galaxies, and dominates the mass distribution in the Local Universe. Grand design spiral galaxies mix with enormous elliptical galaxies to form a mega-complex of stellar metropoles.

The Fornax Cluster, as imaged by MeerLICHT

Among the chief scientific goals is the study of stellar explosions, which need to be studied intensely before they fade away again. 'The study of exploding stars across the Universe will gain a whole new dimension,' says University of Cape Town Prof. Patrick Woudt, co-principal investigator of the MeerLICHT telescope.

The MeerLICHT telescope was purpose-built to combine excellent resolution with a wide field of view. It sees more than 13x the Full Moon while being able to resolve 1 km on the Moon and seeing objects one million times fainter than is possible with the naked eye. 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 in size. This is the largest single detector used in optical astronomy anywhere in the world. The telescope was designed and built in the Netherlands, and then shipped to South Africa.

'We started work on the technical definition of this telescope back in 2012, and it is fantastic to see what amazing views it produces,' says Radboud University Prof. Paul Groot, co-principal investigator of MeerLICHT. 'The image of Baade's Window full of stars in the central regions of our Milky Way is mind blowing and illustrates the magnificent detail of this new telescope. It is filled with stars from edge to edge and shows the high optical quality all the way to the edge of the field-of-view. Now we have to wait for any of these to blow itself apart!'

The link with the MeerKAT radio array has astronomers across the world excited about the new combination. 'For us it was the reason to join this consortium. Flashes of radio emission known as Fast Radio Bursts may now be ‘caught in the act’ by both MeerKAT and MeerLICHT,' explains University of Manchester’s Prof. Ben Stappers, MeerLICHT collaborator, and leader of the MeerTRAP project.  'Hopefully we can finally determine the origin of these enigmatic flashes.'

Prof. Rob Fender, of the Universities of Oxford and Cape Town, co-principal investigator of the telescope, was excited about the inauguration and beginning of operations of the telescope 'This is the beginning of a new phase of coordinated multiwavelength research into the most extreme astrophysical events,' he says.

'Besides extreme astrophysics, typically associated with black holes and neutron stars, we will also study normal stars, in particular those that produce strong flares.' adds team member Prof. Rudy Wijnands of the University of Amsterdam. 'The simultaneous optical-radio monitoring of these stars will allow us to investigate the impact of such flares on the habitability of the planets around them.'

The MeerLICHT telescope will be housed at the Sutherland Observatory, run by the South African Astronomical Observatory. 'MeerLICHT directly links the whole optical observatory, and especially our 10-meter SALT telescope, to the MeerKAT array. It fits perfectly in our strategy to turn the Sutherland Observatory into an efficient transient machine to study the dynamic Universe', says Dr. David Buckley of the South African Astronomical Observatory.


Published by  Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy