MeerKAT consists of 64 dishes, each 13.5 meters in diameter, up to 8 kilometers apart, spread across the dusty Karoo region of South Africa. It is operated by the South African Radio Astronomical Observatory (SARAO) and is just the first phase of the Square Kilometer Array, a project that will eventually become the largest telescope in the world with facilities in Africa and Australia.
"We wanted to demonstrate the scientific capabilities of this new instrument," says Fernando Camilo, senior scientist at SARAO. "The center of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually conspicuous, and full of inexplicable phenomena – but also notoriously hard to image with radio telescopes. Although MeerKAT is still young and there is a lot to be optimized, we decided to go for it – and were amazed by the results. "
The end result of MeerKAT observations is a panoramic image that covers an area of about 1,000 light-years and 500 light-years. The colors show the strength of the received radio signals, from red for low emissions to orange, then yellow and white for the brightest sources.
Not surprisingly, the brightest part of the picture is the one that surrounds the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy. Other bright spots indicate supernova remnants and star-forming regions, some of which have never been pictured before, while others are simply seen more clearly than in the past.
"The MeerKAT image is so clear," says Farhad Yusef-Zadeh, astronomer at Northwestern University. "It shows so many features that have never been seen before, including compact sources associated with some of the filaments that could provide the key to cracking the code and solving this three-decade puzzle."
This is not the first picture of MeerKAT. Two years ago, the array revealed over 1,300 new galaxies in a celestial body with only 16 of its antennae. Now that MeerKAT is running properly, it will scour the skies over the southern hemisphere for signs of gravitational waves, pulsar signals, and even seek out evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.