School of Mathematics, Statistics & Computer Science

DSI-NRF Funds HIRAX Dark Energy Telescope

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Following an intensive and rigorous review process involving international experts, the National Research Foundation (NRF) approved funding of R35 million for the Hydrogen Intensity and Real-time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX) to be built as a guest instrument on the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (SARAO) site in the Karoo.

The new equipment will bolster the country’s ability to perform cutting-edge astronomy research in alignment with the Grand Challenge Astronomy National Strategy.

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in partnership with the NRF will provide funding for the telescope dishes, feeds, radio frequency over fibre system, and some backend hardware.

The contribution represents a significant investment in the overall HIRAX project which is jointly funded by UKZN, DSI and the NRF.

South Africa has a long history of successful astronomy telescopes. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be hosted by both South Africa and Australia, is set to be the largest radio telescope in the world.

HIRAX will provide training and skills development in anticipation of the SKA era while studying cutting-edge questions in the fields of dark energy, fast radio bursts, and pulsar science. The telescope is currently funded to be an interferometer array of 256 closely packed dishes that will provide an unprecedented peek into the history of our universe. There is a possibility of a future expansion to 1 024 dishes.

This state-of-the-art telescope will provide large astronomy data sets to the project’s consortium members, international partners, and project collaborators.

Under the leadership of the Principal Investigator, Professor Kavilan Moodley of UKZN, the HIRAX consortium has seven consortium members – UKZN, SARAO, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, the Durban University of Technology, Rhodes University, the University of Cape Town, and the University of the Western Cape.

There are five international consortium partners – McGill University, ETH Zürich, Université de Genève, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and West Virginia University – as well as collaboration members: Botswana International University of Technology, Laboratoire Astroparticule & Cosmologie, University of British Columbia, Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, the University of Oxford, University of Toronto, The Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Perimeter Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Stellenbosch University, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Yale University.

Reflecting on the NRF’s University Flagship Programme which aims to provide customised, innovative solutions and institutional support in a way that recognises the unique strengths and niche research areas of public universities, Dr Gansen Pillay, the acting CEO of the Foundation, said: ‘This investment in Strategic Research Equipment will further advance postgraduate student training, new knowledge generation and South Africa’s standing as a global leader in the field of astronomy.’

Words: Carolyn Crichton

Photograph: Cynthia Chiang