Stellenbosch, South Africa: In a groundbreaking step towards expanding our understanding of the cosmos, the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) has awarded Stellenbosch-based EMSS Antennas a pivotal R200 million production contract for the production of 60 advanced feed packages, also known as receivers, for its SKA-Mid antennas in South Africa. These will work together to compile a more comprehensive and detailed picture of the universe, achieving unprecedented levels of sensitivity and amplifying the faint signals received from galaxies billions of miles away.
Pioneering South African engineers
The announcement marks the first feed package contract awarded among participating countries and institutions of the SKAO, a significant milestone for EMSS Antennas, an Alphawave Group company, now a global leader in the field of radio astronomy. The company’s engineers have a notable track record, having built the feeds for MeerKAT, the SKA precursor telescope located in South Africa, consisting of 64 antennas in the Meerkat National Park in the Northern Cape. While many organisations and scientists contributed to the telescope’s success, it was EMSS Antennas’ design work that played a crucial role in achieving its remarkable sensitivity.
The MeerKAT astounded international astronomers and scientists by exceeding the specified sensitivity by twofold, leading to a number of discoveries, including two giant radio galaxies, among the largest single entities in the universe. The detection of these galaxies in a relatively small patch of sky suggests that giant radio galaxies may be more common than previously believed, providing valuable insights into galaxy evolution. With radio signals coming from vast distances and bouncing off reflectors, the SKA telescopes will peer millions of years into the past, offering unprecedented insights into the early universe and galaxies of bygone eras.
Dr. Ian Heywood, a co-author from the University of Oxford, praised the MeerKAT telescope, stating, “The MeerKAT telescope is the best of its kind in the world. We have managed to identify these giant radio galaxies for the first time because of MeerKAT’s unprecedented sensitivity to faint and diffuse radio light. This made it possible to detect features that haven’t been seen before.”
Following on from the successful construction of the MeerKAT telescope, construction of the SKA-Mid antennas has now started, which will see some 130 additional antennas built on the same site and equipped with advanced receivers such as the one supplied by EMSS Antennas.
For almost two decades, under the technical leadership of their director and principal engineer, Isak Theron, EMSS Antennas has become the go-to partner for complex projects like the SKA, due to their proficiency in using FEKO, a leading tool for understanding and optimising antenna placement and coupling, and their cryogenic cooling system, which brings the active electronics to temperatures of -255 degrees Celsius, reducing the vibration and noise of electrons, resulting in unparalleled clarity and precision.
Why does it matter?
Theron explains, ”The SKA project marks the beginning of a new frontier in scientific exploration using leading edge technology. Our feed package’s sensitivity paves the way for revolutionary discoveries in space and astronomy and we are excited about playing a part in this scientific and engineering journey to reveal the cosmos’ deepest secrets.”
Mark Harman, the SKAO Dish Project Manager, adds, “We are very pleased to be working with EMSS in South Africa. Their engineering expertise in this field is world-class. This contract is a testament to South Africa’s technological know-how and is a great example of its vital contribution to the international SKA project. It is the culmination of several years of development, and we look forward to the successful deployment of Band 2 Detectors in the observatory.”
Frans Meyer, CEO of Alphawave Group, adds, “The SKA project’s significance for South Africa extends beyond scientific breakthroughs. It inspires our country’s youth to pursue education and careers in engineering and science, contributing to the nation’s intellectual and technical advancement, and it drives local industries to push their boundaries, particularly in manufacturing requirements. Furthermore, it keeps exceptional engineers and scientists in South Africa, providing a platform for the country’s development and progress. At Alphawave Group, we have a real talent for investing in the right people and supporting their evolution over time. This news is an excellent example of that.”
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