On March 27th 2014, the first General Dynamics-built antenna for the MeerKAT radio telescope was launched in South Africa. When completed, the MeerKAT array will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. (Photo courtesy of SKA South Africa)

General Dynamics SATCOM Technologies, a part of General Dynamics Mission Systems, and Stratosat Datacom (Pty) Ltd., a South African company and the prime contractor for this project, have installed the first of 64 MeerKAT radio telescope antennas to form the MeerKAT array. The array, located in South Africa’s Karoo region, is a technologically advanced radio telescope designed to detect and map radio-frequency signals coming from the furthest reaches of the universe.

The MeerKAT array will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere and represents the first significant installation of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) that is scheduled for completion in 2024.

For more than 40 years, General Dynamics SATCOM has been helping astronomers unravel the mysteries of the universe, said Chris Marzilli, president of General Dynamics Mission Systems. We are proud to be partnering with Stratosat in the construction of the MeerKAT array and look forward to the new and exciting discoveries it will yield.

Building South Africa's New Eye to the Sky Through Industry-Leading Expertise and a Unique Antenna Design

A team of General Dynamics employees in our Richardson, Texas, office directed the projects engineering and management while employees at our site in Duisburg, Germany, led the structural design efforts for the MeerKAT radio telescope antennas. Each antenna's reflector structure is specially designed to retain its focus across temperatures that vary from -10C to +50C, allowing the structure to expand and contract yet still keep its optical shape. General Dynamics Mission Systems is one of very few companies in the world with the expertise to deliver this technical capability.

Our engineers also incorporated an indexer that positions multiple receivers on each antenna. The addition of an indexer is unique on this type of antenna and allows scientists to easily and quickly change or tune the radio frequency band that one or multiple antennas use during a scientific experiment. The ability to alter the frequency range of a radio telescope antenna without disrupting the entire arrays performance is a significant technological advancement for radio telescopes.

A hidden yet key feature of our antennas is the motion control capabilities developed over four decades of continuing refinement. Dr. Glen Collins, MeerKAT program manager for General Dynamics, explains:

“For radio telescopes to reach deep into space, they must perform the equivalent of a ‘time exposure’ as one would do with a camera in low light conditions. With a camera, we simply open the shutter and expose the film for a long period of time to obtain a brighter image in dark conditions provided the subject is sitting still. However, in astronomy, the subject of the picture is constantly moving due to the earth's rotation. Our antenna motion control systems can smoothly move the 25-ton reflector so that the stars appear to stand still for hours on end. Few companies can achieve this level of large structure motion stability, and our Richardson and Duisburg teams deliver these capabilities with all of the optical and radio telescopes we design.”

MeerKATs antennas will achieve less than five arc-seconds of jitter in the image, permitting unprecedented reach into deep space over the frequency ranges in use.

Once operational, detected radio signal energy patterns will be digitized and transferred from each antenna to a super-computer, which will mathematically combine the signals to create a visual map of cosmic magnetism, massive space structures, dark matter and other galactic phenomenon for scientific study. The power of the array will increase as each antenna is added.

Cool Facts About MeerKAT

  • Antenna height: 19.5 meters
  • Reflector (or dish) diameter: 13.5 meters
  • Total weight including base, pedestal and dish: 42 tons (moving section weighs 25 tons)
  • It takes about six months to build one MeerKAT antenna from start to finish
  • The longest distance between any two antennas (maximum baseline) is 8 km
  • In one day, the data received by a single MeerKAT antenna will generate enough raw data to fill 15 million 64-GB iPod devices
  • Once all 64 MeerKAT antennas are operational, the instrument will be sensitive enough to pick up a cell phone signal from Saturn
  • Leading radio astronomy teams around the globe have already signed up to use the instrument as soon as it is ready

MeerKAT and the SKA Telescope

The MeerKAT telescope is a Square Kilometre Array precursor or ‘pathfinder’ telescope. The SKA project is an international effort to build the worlds largest radio telescope with a square kilometer (one million square meters) of collecting area. The scale of the SKA represents a huge leap forward in both engineering and research, and development towards building and delivering a unique instrument, with the detailed design and preparation now well under way. As one of the largest scientific endeavors in history, the SKA will bring together some of the worlds leading scientists, engineers and policy makers.

Mentoring the South African Industrial Base

With the antenna design complete and the first antenna now in place, the Stratosat and General Dynamics SATCOM team will continue to work closely with multiple South African fabricators, engineers and technicians to build and install the MeerKAT antenna array over the next three years. Stratosat and General Dynamics SATCOM have also established a panel fabrication facility in South Africa which is set to manufacture 2,500 reflector panels during the execution of the program.

Adding to Our Impressive Legacy

Since 1968, we have been designing and building some of the world's most advanced optical telescope mirror structures and radio telescope antennas. Our technologically advanced antennas are found in astronomical observatories and scientific installations around the world, including:

  • Joint Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) Observatory (Chile), capturing never before seen images of the universe;
  • Jet Propulsion Deep Space Network (Australia, Spain, Argentina), improving communications and data capacity of spacecraft studying the sun, planets and moons;
  • Lowell Observatory Discovery Channel Telescope (Arizona, U.S.A.), connecting millions of Discovery Channel viewers to real-time astronomy and research;
  • Twin Telescope Wettzell (Wettzell, Germany), tracking continental drift of the Earths tectonic plates to within one centimeter per year; and,
  • South Pole Telescope (South Pole, Antarctica), helping scientists study the origins and makeup of dark matter in the cosmos (recently highlighted in a USA Today article on gravitational wave discoveries).

We also supply more than 70 percent of the commercial satellite antennas and related ground station products used by commercial communications companies and broadcast networks worldwide.

The article was originally published on March 31, 2014 (Updated on 3/27/2015)