Driving the 4th industrial revolution through astronomical data

An SAAO Special Edition of NRF Science Matters Magazine Vol 3 Issue 3 was released by the National Research Foundation. This special edition of Science Matters focuses on the facilities, infrastructure and research themes through which South Africa punches well above its weight in the global Astronomy endeavour.

The National Research Foundation hosts a variety of world-leading telescopes such as the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and MeerKAT which are facilitating new discoveries in stellar and galaxy evolution. Telescope facilities are being built, adapted or mobilised to spot ‘transients’ and ‘fast radio bursts’. Big data processing facilities have also been established, preparing us for the Square Kilometre Array and South Africa’s role in the fourth industrial revolution.

From its inception, the MeerKAT telescope was going to be one of the most advanced astronomical instruments in the world, and scientists from around the world quickly sent in ambitious observing proposals bidding for the telescope’s time. These original projects are the Large Survey Projects (LSPs). LSPs would be conducted over many years and comprise thousands of hours of observing time, thus generating petabytes of data, a scale that astronomers had never had to handle. Astronomers were now in the Big Data game.

This enormous challenge was counterbalanced by the opportunity for innovation. LSPs would need access to data centre infrastructure that allowed them to analyse and interrogate the data with enough computing and storage capacity to handle the massive volume of MeerKAT data. This is where the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) comes in. IDIA was founded in 2015 by Professor Russ Taylor, SKA Research Chair. The ambition of the institute is to enable researchers at its partner universities (the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and the University of Pretoria) to process MeerKAT data.

Our partners at University of Pretoria discuss one of the most pressing research themes in contemporary astrophysics is the nature of black holes; how they form relativistic jets; and their relationship to the gas and stars in their host galaxies. By seeking out strange and special cases of the emission associated with black holes, we can (metaphorically) shed light on these intrinsically dark objects. n the pursuit of studying exotic radio morphologies, great effort is being put into developing new antennae in new sites, including Africa, to improve the imaging quality of black holes and their “shadows”. MeerKAT is also being enhanced with an extra 20 antennae to become MeerKAT+; and then with a further 113 antennae to become the first phase in the Square Kilometre Array’s mid-frequency component. 

Read more about IDIA’s role in driving the 4th Industrial Revolution (page 28 – 32) and Shedding light in the darkest places using African telescope (page 21-23) in the SAAO Special Edition below.

We invite you to also read about the other endeavours South Africa’s Astronomy community continues to be engaged in by downloading the SAAO Special Edition of Science Matters from here: https://www.nrf.ac.za/NRF_SMMag/Vol3/Issue3/