Astronomical potential

Released on 28 March 2014

Oxford Cryosystems helps push the boundaries of the known universe

Senior management from Oxfordshire-based business Oxford Cryosystems are celebrating their involvement in a global project to create what will eventually become the largest and most sensitive radio telescope on earth. Directors Richard Glazer and Alex Renshaw joined a delegation of international dignitaries at the official launch yesterday [27 March 2014] of the first MeerKAT antenna, near the small town of Carnarvon, South Africa.

South African Minister of Science and Technology Derek Hanekom officially opened the first antenna that will make up South Africa’s new radio telescope, MeerKAT. With a unique design and standing 19.5m tall and weighing 42 tons, the new MeerKAT antenna will collect radio-frequency signals from the furthest reaches of the universe, possibly from the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang. The full MeerKAT array will consist of 64 antennae with receivers and other special electronics installed. These will operate as a single, highly sensitive astronomical instrument and astronomers from around the world will be able to use the facility to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail, and faster than any system currently in existence. When fully operational by 2016, MeerKAT will generate enough data to fill about 4.5million 4.7GB DVDs in a day.

Commenting from South Africa, Oxford Cryosystems Managing Director Richard Glazer said: “We are honoured to be a part of this international collaboration. There are a number of member countries and organisations involved in designing, developing and building the MeerKAT array, and it is a significant development opportunity for Oxford Cryosystems, with many of our cryocoolers required during the first phase alone.”

Oxford Cryosystems is a market-leading manufacturer of specialist coolers used in a wide range of scientific applications, from x-ray crystallography to MRI scanners. The company will provide custom-built cryocoolers which are critical components of the MeerKAT antennas’ extremely sensitive radio receivers. By cooling the detectors to temperatures as low as -250°C (most household freezers maintain temperatures from −23 to −18°C), the effect of the cryocoolers is to reduce noise while increasing the device’s sensitivity to weak signals, a process which results in better data for scientists.

Glazer adds: “At Oxford Cryosystems, we have a history of working with many of the world’s top science and research organisations. By working on MeerKAT alongside other project partners, we are developing cutting-edge technology which will help to push the boundaries of current scientific knowledge about our universe.”

MeerKAT is a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international US$1.5 billion project to build the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, with core sites based in South Africa and Australia. UK Science Minister David Willetts recently pledged £100 million of funding towards building the SKA.

Dignitaries from around the world attended the launch on Thursday, including the Director General of the SKA Phil Diamond, the CEO of the Science Technologies and Facilities Council John Womersley, ministers from eight African partner countries, and representatives from member countries.