Radio-astronomy project expected to boost PhD numbers

A ZAR70 million (US$4.6 million) global radio-astronomy project unveiled in Durban, South Africa, recently will conduct groundbreaking science in astrophysics while building on existing excellence in research by encouraging further doctoral and post-doctoral studies.

Located 20 kilometres from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) site, the Hydrogen Intensity and Real-time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX) is a compact radio telescope array of 1,024 six-metre dishes that will map a third of the sky during its four-year observation.

Jointly funded by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Department of Science and Technology via the National Research Foundation (NRF), it has synergies with the 64-dish MeerKAT array, the country’s precursor to the SKA that was officially launched in July.

The eight-telescope pilot HIRAX project was erected at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory last October. The project originated as a response by UKZN to a call by the NRF for institutional flagship projects. Following legislation that limits radio frequency interference on the SKA South Africa site in the Karoo, HIRAX will add to South Africa’s radio-astronomy engineering and infrastructure.

Next generation of scientists

HIRAX Principal Investigator Professor Kavilan Moodley said the infrastructure – and the resulting science – will boost South Africa’s reputation as a global leader in radio astronomy and train the next generation of scientists for the SKA project.

Students working on HIRAX will train in all aspects of the telescope, from the engineering to the science, meaning students building the hardware are also involved in data analysis. This provides the environment in which to train new radio astronomy experts.

The main goals involve studying dark energy using hydrogen intensity mapping between 400 and 800 MHz as well as detecting and localising fast radio bursts by using outrigger arrays throughout Southern Africa.

HIRAX will determine the characteristics of dark energy during a critical period in the universe’s history between seven and 11 billion years ago when dark energy became its dominant component and triggered accelerated expansion. HIRAX will advance knowledge within the field of cosmological science and track expansion of dark energy.


UKZN will manage the experiment in collaboration with eight other South African institutions and another 12 international institutions including the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape, the University of Oxford, Yale University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Laboratoire APC in Paris, the Swiss-South African Co-operation Initiative and the ETH Zurich Cosmology Research Group.

By dove-tailing with other institutions, the significant costs of the project are significantly reduced. Currently UKZN, the NRF and the national government have raised ZAR20 million towards the ZAR70 million hardware costs and the partners are actively seeking additional funding nationally and internationally.

Moodley said the research conducted by masters, doctoral and post-doctoral students means further cost savings.

South African Radio Astronomy Observatory Managing Director Dr Rob Adam says astronomy can potentially attract significant investments in ‘big science’ – the expensive scientific research that involves large teams of scientists – into South Africa. If HIRAX discovers new pulsars – the celestial objects thought to be rapidly rotating neutron stars emitting regular pulses of radio waves – MeerKAT can conduct follow-up timing observations at higher frequencies.

Moodley said HIRAX capitalises on South Africa’s competitive advantage in the SKA Karoo site. It will collect data at a rate of 6.5 terabits per second, translating into 10 times South Africa’s international bandwidth and, working alongside local companies, scientists must design and manufacture high precision dishes, receivers and other instrumentation to achieve this goal.

Manufacturing opportunities

Thereafter they must calculate smart ways for compressing, storing and analysing the data. This will require big data hardware and software. He said he hoped the design and manufacturing abilities required to fully equip HIRAX will open up local manufacturing and production opportunities.

“HIRAX will help South Africa develop innovative solutions, particularly in instrumentation and big data processing, directly impacting other economic sectors through technology transfer,” Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said during the launch.

The government welcomed the project’s contribution to human capital development by training doctoral students. This will assist South Africa to achieve its target of 100 PhDs per million of the population by 2030 and “inspire the next generation of learners to enter the exciting fields of science and engineering”, Kubayi-Ngubane said.