The MeerKAT telescope is an array of 64 interlinked receptors (a receptor is the complete antenna structure, with the main reflector, sub-reflector and all receivers, digitisers and other electronics installed).
The configuration (placement) of the receptors is determined by the science objectives of the telescope.
48 of the receptors are concentrated in the core area which is approximately 1 km in diameter.
The longest distance between any two receptors (the so-called maximum baseline) is 8 km.
Each MeerKAT receptor consists of three main components:
- The antenna positioner, which is a steerable dish on a pedestal;
- A set of radio receivers;
- A set of associated digitisers.
The antenna positioner is made up of the 13.5 m effective diameter main reflector, and a 3.8 m diameter sub-reflector. In this design, referred to as an ‘Offset Gregorian’ optical layout, there are no struts in the way to block or interrupt incoming electromagnetic signals. This ensures excellent optical performance, sensitivity and imaging quality, as well as good rejection of unwanted radio frequency interference from orbiting satellites and terrestrial radio transmitters. It also enables the installation of multiple receiver systems in the primary and secondary focal areas, and provides a number of other operational advantages.
The combined surface accuracy of the two reflectors is extremely high with a deviation from the ideal shape being no more than 0.6 mm RMS (root mean square). The main reflector surface is made up of 40 aluminium panels mounted on a steel support framework.
This framework is mounted on top of a yoke, which is in turn mounted on top of a pedestal. The combined height of the pedestal and yoke is just over 8 m. The height of the total structure is 19.5 m, and it weighs 42 tons.
The pedestal houses the antenna’s pointing control system.
Mounted at the top of the pedestal, beneath the yoke, are an azimuth drive and a geared azimuth bearing, which allow the main and sub-reflectors, together with the receiver indexer, to be rotated horizontally. The yoke houses the azimuth wrap, which guides all the cables when the antenna is rotated, and prevents them from becoming entangled or damaged. The structure allows an observation elevation range from 15 to 88 degrees, and an azimuth range from -185 degrees to +275 degrees, where north is at zero degrees.
The steerable antenna positioner can point the main reflector very accurately, to within 5 arcseconds (1.4 thousandths of a degree) under low-wind and night-time observing conditions, and to within 25 arcseconds (7 thousandths of a degree) during normal operational conditions.