Karoo at the forefront of future space travel navigation

The Karoo’s vast expanse of desert will introduce 3000 radio telescopes as part of an initiative by Square Kilometer Array to discover new planets, stars and possibly extraterrestrial life.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a world renowned radio astronomer, presented a talk as part of the SKA science conference yesterday evening at the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study (STIAS) building in Stellenbosch. The presentation ranged from pulsating radio stars, also known as pulsars, to the unique possibilities that these special stars may offer the global community.

Burnell, an Irish astrophysicist is known for her work in the discovery of pulsars. Experts like Burnell believe that these stars have the potential to aid in navigation through galaxies, acting as beacons or lighthouses for space ships of the future. Burnell has not ruled out the possibility of finding life on other planets and the study of these pulsars could play a large role in this discovery.

“We believe life can be sustained when water is in its liquid form. The chances of a planet in our universe having liquid water are extremely high. The question is not if there is life on other planets but what we will do with this information once it arrives,” states Burnell.

Dr. Adrian Tiplady, the SKA Site Bid Manager spoke of the plans for the Karoo and its leap into space study, “The project kicks off in March 2014 and by 2022 we will see the last telescope erected.”

The first phase of the SKA project is the introduction of the radio telescope dubbed MeerKAT. MeerKAT will be the largest centimeter wavelength telescope in the Southern Hemisphere once completed.

“There will be a couple hundred dishes, or little radio telescopes, scattered around the Karoo and used to pick up radio waves from distant galaxies,” states Burnell. “The Square Kilometer Array will enable us to see all the pulsars in our galaxy that point our way, which will be about 10 times the amount of what we know at the moment.”

The Karoo was chosen as the location for SKA as it has a low inhabitation of people and low radio interference. Mobile phones emit large interference which is why a large, open, uninhabited area was chosen.

“South Africa in the near future is going to play a special part in radio astronomy,” states Bell.

A pulsar is the shrunken core of an exploded star. This relatively small, extremely dense star rotates at incredible speeds around its own axis. This rotation produces the sound which radio telescopes can gather and in this way, locate pulsars all over the universe.