College of Graduate Studies

What ended the dark ages of the universe?

Bryna Hazelton (Research scientist: Department of Physics, UW), Dr Miguel Morales (Associate Professor: Department of Physics, UW), and Kifle Hailemariam Mekuanint (Unisa postgraduate student) discussing research results.

In the middle of the Karoo in South Africa, a new radio astronomy telescope to study the “cosmic dawn” is being built as part of the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionisation Array (HERA) project. Building the skills to run and participate in such a project is essential. Funded by the United States National Science Foundation, the CAMPARE-HERA Astronomy Minority Partnership (CHAMP) programme seeks to study cosmology and radio astronomy and hone participants’ expertise in these fields.

Kifle Hailemariam Mekuanint, a Unisa PhD student supervised by Prof Lerothodi Leeuw of the College of Graduate Studies (CGS), participated in CHAMP, held in the United States from 10 June to 27 August 2017.

Kicking off with boot camp

Orienting participants in cosmology, interferometry, radio astronomy and the HERA project, the programme started with a boot camp at the California State Polytechnic University. Thereafter, under the supervision of Dr Miguel Morales, Mekuanint began his research assignment on statistical analysis of data from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) at the University of Washington (UW). The MWA is a precursor “cosmic dawn” telescope of the bigger and more sensitive HERA telescope, and therefore analysing its data provided Mekuanint with good training.

“Data science is a very young but rapidly developing field, which focuses on manipulating big data,” Mekuanint says. To close off, Mekuanint took part in a CHAMP-HERA symposium where he presented results of his analysis of MWA data.

The “Cosmic Dawn” study from South Africa with the HERA Telescope

The cosmic dawn, a time in the universe’s history, a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies burst into existence, ending the so-called period of the “dark ages”, is a mystery under the telescope. In perpetuating the study of this period, the HERA telescope will assist astronomers in observing the tell-tale emission of neutral hydrogen gas that was ionised by the very first stars and galaxies that turned on in the early universe.

Participating in the CHAMP programme has given Mekuanint a path to explore this frontier research, and a platform to meet and engage with experts from different areas of astronomy and cosmology. In solving key scientific problems and in keeping up with the culture of communicating on research, he now feels motivated to connect with fellow researchers globally.

Leeuw and his Unisa postgraduate students have started participating in the HERA project, which could potentially attract excellent researchers and scientists. Collaboration with international scientists will have a favourable impact on the sustainable development of science and technology in South Africa and Africa.

*By Mpho Moloele