MSc Research Contributes to Ground-Breaking Radio Telescope

Mr Kabelo Kesebonye of Botswana graduated with an MSc in Applied Mathematics from UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science for work done on the HIRAX radio astronomy project.

‘Kabelo was the first student on the HIRAX experiment to receive his postgraduate degree,’ said his supervisor, Dr Cynthia Chiang.

Kesebonye already holds a BSc in Applied Mathematics and Physics and a BSc Honours degree in Applied Mathematics, all of which he obtained at UKZN.

‘I have been at UKZN since my undergraduate studies. The reason I came here is because I wanted to pursue astronomy and UKZN was one of the few universities that offered the course at the time,’ said Kesebonye.

Kesebonye’s MSc research on HIRAX Instrumentation and Prototype Characterisation involved setting up a prototype telescope from the ground up as well as testing and developing the subsystems that made up the telescope to ensure it worked efficiently. ‘Once the prototype works and has been fine-tuned then the final telescope construction can begin,’ he explained.

‘Astronomy is an important field of science that studies the universe and aims to provide answers to a lot of questions about the universe we inhabit. The technology that is developed in the study of the universe is transferable to other scientific fields as well as electronic and mechanical instruments that people use daily,’ he said.

Kesebonye has always had a passion for radio astronomy, which motivated him to choose this field of study. He recalled being in awe of radio telescopes when he visited radio observation sites during his undergraduate years.

Kesebonye plans to continue with his studies, registering for a PhD in Radio Astronomy. ‘Basically, I will be carrying on from where I left off on my MSc project,’ he said. ‘The instrument is still in the prototyping phase and the aim is to have the final instrument designed and taking data soon.’

Kesebonye acknowledged and thanked his supervisor, Chiang, for her patience and guidance during his research journey. He also thanked his mother and siblings for always being supportive.

‘Kabelo has made key contributions to a wide variety of HIRAX subsystems. He’s an excellent example of the type of instrumentation expert who will be critical to the success of the project,’ said Chiang.

Jointly funded by UKZN and the Department of Science and Technology through the National Research Foundation, the multimillion rand HIRAX (Hydrogen Intensity and Real Time Analysis eXperiment) telescope will be located at the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa site in the Karoo and will have important synergies with the 64-dish MeerKAT, the country’s precursor to the SKA.

HIRAX will be a compact radio telescope array of 1 024 six-metre dishes that will map about a third of the sky during its four years of observation. HIRAX will be able to determine the characteristics of dark energy during a critical period in our universe between 7 – 11 billion years ago when dark energy became the dominant component in the universe causing it to expand at an accelerated rate.

The main HIRAX array, combined with small arrays in partnering African countries, will be able to localise mysterious radio flashes called Fast Radio Bursts (FRB) within their host galaxies, a feat never achieved before. This will be a vital first step in determining the cause of these bursts.

The experiment is being managed by UKZN and is a result of a large global collaboration with at least eight South African institutions, and another dozen internationally.

The researchers will undertake a technical programme that involves building the instrument, carrying out science observations and analysing the raw data. In addition, the project will work with industry to develop new technology and innovation, such as telescope hardware and big data analysis tools.

Words: Zolile Duma

Photograph: Supplied