Searching For The Universe’s First Stars

Dr. Cynthia Chiang standing beside the PRIZM telescope located on Marion Island.

Dr Cynthia Chiang, a senior astrophysics lecturer at UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit, recently returned from Marion Island, located halfway between Antarctica and South Africa, where she upgraded the PRIZM radio telescope. The telescope, built by Dr Chiang and her astrophysics students, is being used to detect traces of the first stars that turned on in the Universe.

At the beginning of April, Dr Chiang visited the island with her students to install two additional antennaes on the telescope- the team’s first visit to the island after having installed the telescope in 2017. The two new antennas are of a different design and operate at lower frequencies, to the two existing antennae. At the end of May, Dr Chiang returned to Marion Island alone. At the Island, she repaired a portion of the telescope with the help of the overwinterer, base engineer, diesel mechanic, the helicopter team and the Department of Environmental Affairs. She also managed to swop out 500 kg’s of batteries to increase the lifespan of the experiment.

PRIZM (Probing Radio Intensity at high-Z from Marion) is a low-frequency radio telescope which collects information about the universe during the “Cosmic Dawn”, the period a few hundred million years after the big bang when the first stars in the universe formed.  The light from these first stars is too dim for optical telescopes to view, therefore they have never been measured directly. PRIZM was designed to make this measurement and to help determine when the first stars and galaxies formed.

In order to effectively capture data, the chosen site for the telescope, had to be free from man-made transmissions such as radio stations and cell phones. Marion Island was chosen due to its ideal remote location: It is separated from the nearest continental landmasses by 2000 km and is one of the most radio silent locations in the world.

Dr Chiang and her team experienced many challenges while working on the Island. The island lies in the Roaring Forties, an area notorious for high winds, rain and cold temperatures and the Island is only accessible via ship (The SA Agulhas II) once a year. In addition, time on the Island is extremely limited “We had a very compressed timeline of three weeks on the island to set up, get the equipment running, capture the data and leave. Sometimes weather and logistic delays gave us even less time to get things done” said Dr Chiang. Despite facing these challenges, Dr Chiang and her team managed to successfully upgrade the telescope.

The PRIZM telescope which has been collecting data for the past year at Marion Island.

Dr Chiang and her students are currently processing data collected from the PRIZM telescope data in the past 12 months. “With this telescope, we receive true signals from the sky as well as environment and systematic effects that might be introduced by an instrument, therefore there is a lot of work involved in separating these effects making sure to understand that what we’re seeing is the actual truth from the sky”, said Dr Chiang.

Dr Chiang has also contributed to other telescopes across the world including SPIDERPlanck High-Frequency InstrumentSouth Pole Telescope and C-BASS. However of all the locations that Dr Chiang has worked at, she feels that Marion Island has been the hardest. “You’re cold, tired, hungry and exhausted all the time but it is absolutely worth it for the science and it is just a beautiful location as well”.


We Hosted a National Workshop for Young Scientists and Engineers

Delegates at the radio astronomy workshop in Durban.

Academically excellent science and engineering undergraduate students from across the country descended upon Durban on Monday (2 July 2018) for a radio astronomy workshop, hosted by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). The workshop aimed to showcase exciting developments in astronomy, to encourage these young students to pursue their Masters and PhD degrees in radio astronomy science or engineering. In doing so, the workshop sought to help address the low numbers of appropriately qualified radio astronomers, researchers and engineers in South Africa.

Due to the multifaceted nature of radio astronomy, the students that have attended the workshop are from a variety of fields including astronomy, engineering, physics, mathematics and computer science.

The workshop covered a wide range of astronomy topics including black holes, building telescopes radio astronomy and computing. Furthermore, students obtained a better understanding of professional astronomy by interacting with both renowned UKZN astronomers and UKZN astronomy PhD and Masters students. “This is an amazing opportunity for undergraduate students to learn more about astronomy. I’m particularly looking forward to learning more about instrumentation” said Miss Denisha Pillay, a third year UKZN astronomy student who holds an astronomy bursary from SARAO.

UKZN was selected to host the workshop because it has a large number of students studying astronomy degrees. Furthermore UKZN, in partnership with the National Research Foundation (NRF), SARAO, and the Department of Science and Technology, will be constructing a R70 million telescope named HIRAX, which will provide students with the opportunity to develop relevant skills, as well as to engage in important research.

“The workshop will assist in creating an interactive and collaborative community, of students, local researchers and the SARAO team. We are looking forward to an exciting informative event that highlights the importance of postgraduate studies in astronomy” says Dr Mthuthuzeli Zamxaka, Manager of Research Capacity Development, at SARAO.

SARAO is responsible for coordinating Africa’s involvement in the design and construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), and for the design, construction and commissioning of South Africa’s Karoo Array Radio Telescope (MeerKAT). In addition, SARAO is coordinating the African VLBI Network (AVN) efforts, and a human capital development programme. SARAO is a project of the Department of Science and Technology, administered by the National Research Foundation.

Our Zahra: Congratulations from S.A. Government and MIT studies

Ms Zahra Essack graduated with a Masters in Astrophysics, cum laude.

Developing an algorithm to search for planets outside the solar system earned Ms Zahra Essack a Master of Science (MSc) cum laude in Applied Mathematics (Astrophysics) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. This brings the number of degrees Essack has received from the university to three, preceded by a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Science Honours – both awarded summa cum laude – in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The National Assembly during its sitting held on Tuesday, 24 April 2018 passed a motion of congratulation for Essack for developing this algorithm.

Essack developed an algorithm to detect transiting exoplanets in light curve data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. A transit occurs when a planet passes across the face of its host star and blocks out some of the star’s light. The blocking of star light creates dips in the light curve of the star (a light curve is a plot of brightness vs. time). If these dips occur periodically, it can be indicative of the presence of an exoplanet orbiting the star. The shape of the dips provides information about the size, period and orbital distance of the exoplanet.

Essack’s research was funded by an Innovation Masters Scholarship from the Department of Science and Technology – National Research Foundation (DST-NRF) and the Vincent Maphai Scholarship, awarded to the top-ranked masters student in the entire university.

In addition to receiving the Dean’s Commendation for eight consecutive semesters, Essack was the top student in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science throughout her bachelor and honours degrees. She was the recipient of nine scholarships from UKZN, most of which she accepted without purse, allowing them to be reallocated to other deserving students.

Among her achievements, Essack received the Brenda M Gourley Scholarship in 2015 when she was ranked second undergraduate student in the entire University, the Zac Yacoob Scholarship in 2016 for being the best student proceeding to an honours degree and the Maryam Babangida Scholarship in the same year for being the best female student in the entire university progressing from undergraduate to honours study. She also received the National Research Foundation Square Kilometre Array (NRF-SKA) Scholarship from 2014–2016.

Essack is presently pursuing her doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, supervised by Professor Sara Seager, a world leader in exoplanet research.

After attaining her PhD, Essack hopes to return to South Africa to start a Centre for Excellence in exoplanets. Centres of Excellence are an initiative of the DST-NRF which focuses on research excellence, capacity development as well as inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration.

‘South Africa has become a radio astronomy hub with the SKA project. In setting up a Center of Excellence on exoplanets upon my return to South Africa, the future generation of radio astronomers will have another field to pursue, a field not yet fully tapped into in South Africa. This would allow me to further my field of specialisation in South Africa within the SKA project in collaboration with MIT and other international networks I would have forged during my graduate studies,’ said Essack.

‘Research is a challenging process with a myriad of positive and negative turns that keep you perpetually motivated in search of solutions. It is ultimately a rewarding journey,’ said Essack.

‘I have been fortunate to learn from and work with world-class researchers in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science and the School of Chemistry and Physics at UKZN, who have inspired me and helped me to grow as a scientist and a researcher. I am grateful to have received an education that has allowed me to compete at an international level in my field.’

Professor Kavilan Moodley, of UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit said: ‘Zahra was involved in original research in developing an independent technique to extract transiting exoplanets from Kepler light curve data. Kepler has revolutionised the field of exoplanet research and Zahra’s successful analysis of this data demonstrates her competence with research methods and their application in this field.’

Dr Matt Hilton (senior lecturer, MSCS) said: ‘Zahra was a brilliant and hardworking student and it was a pleasure working with her. I wish her all the best for her PhD studies in the United States.’

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Beating all Obstacles to Pursue a Dream and Passion

Best Third Year Mathematics student in 2016, Mr Warren Naidoo has graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) Honours degree.

A young Chatsworth man dispelled what many people claimed was a ‘waste of time’ career choice. Mr Warren Naidoo was proud to graduate summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) Honours degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

It has been Naidoo’s dream to become an astronomer. After matriculating at Asoka Secondary School in Chatsworth, Naidoo was awarded the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) bursary through the Astrophysics, Cosmology and Research Unit (ACRU) to pursue a BSc degree at UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES).

‘Many people told me that my chosen field is a waste of time and there will be no jobs, but I can now say that they were wrong.’ said Naidoo.

Through perseverance Naidoo received the prestigious 2016 G I Bateman award for being the best third-year Mathematics student. In 2017, Naidoo graduated with a BSc degree cum laude.

‘My passion and childhood dream to one day become a scientist is what motivated me to pursue my Honours degree in Applied Mathematics. I have always been deeply fascinated by astrophysics and astronomy related fields as well as mathematics and its applications to describe everything we see around us,’ said Naidoo.

‘Studying towards my honours has been really enjoyable as I got to learn many interesting things like Einstein’s theory of general relativity which has always captivated my curiosity. It has also been truly satisfying as it symbolises a major step towards the ultimate goal of getting my PhD,’ said Naidoo.

In addition to Naidoo graduating summa cum laude with a BSc Honours, he received the top honours award for Applied Mathematics in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.

Currently Naidoo is doing his Master of Science (MSc) degree in Cosmology which involves cutting-edge scientific research. His future plans are to pursue a PhD and ultimately continue with research as an academic at a university or research institution.

Naidoo’s secret to his success, ‘Is determination and to never give up on your dreams to do what you are passionate about.’ He thanked his supervisor, Professor Kavilan Moodley, for guiding him through the academic journey.

Naidoo still finds time to indulge in some of his hobbies which include sketching, playing music, solving puzzles and reading.

His proud father, Mr S Naidoo said, ‘I am truly proud of my son Warren. He has truly become an inspiration to many other young people in our community. Many students come to Warren for advice and it is evident that these students gain confidence that they can reach their goals in life.  I know he will make all his dreams come true and continue to make us proud and amazed.’

‘Warren has achieved outstanding results in his honours degree, including his research project in Cosmology. He has already made significant advances during his master’s degree working on the UKZN flagship project, HIRAX. He will publish a paper shortly on his results, and has a very promising research career ahead of him,’ said Professor Kavilan Moodley.

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Using an Empty Packet of Chips to View a Solar Eclipse: A Lecturer in the Making

Mr Mthokozisi Mdlalose graduated with his Masters in Physics with the support of his family.

Mr Mthokozisi Mdlalose graduated with a Masters in Physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His passion for astronomy had previously earned him summa cum laude when he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Applied Mathematics and Physics, majoring in Astrophysics at the University.

Mdlalose fondly recalled how as a young boy he used an empty packet of chips as a filter to view a solar eclipse.

After completing matric at Sukuma Comprehensive School in Pietermaritzburg, Mdlalose pursued a Bachelor of Science (BSc) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

In 2014, Mdlalose embarked on his BSc Honours degree in Physics. His exceptional results saw him scooping the 2016 UKZN Talent Equity and Excellence Scholarship award. Mdlalose effortlessly graduated cum laude with his BSc Honours degree in Physics.

‘Astronomy has been used for thousands of years to understand the connection that exist between earth, the solar system and the whole universe. The principle derived from astronomical observation has been used to develop a day-to-day life of human beings.  It was an inherited curiosity about the interconnectedness of the universe and the inevitable task to address poverty, inequality and injustices that propelled me to study Astronomy,’ said Mdlalose.

Thereafter Mdlalose set his sights on doing his master’s degree with Professor Jonathan Sievers. His research focused on the Quasi-Redundant Calibration. It was to look at how high sensitivity telescope and high precision calibration instruments such as the Precision Array to Probe the Epoch of Re-ionization (PAPER), Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA)  and SKA-low (located at Karoo, Northern Cape) is able measure the 21cm signal radiated by neutral hydrogen from a distance past around 100-500 millions after the Big Bang “the creation of the universe”.

Cosmologists will use the 21 cm signal to study the physics behind the formation of the first stars and galaxies, and further answer the question about the nature of mysterious dark matter and dark energy.

Mdlalose’s master’s research investigated the impact of instrumental imperfections that can potentially make the 21 cm signal measurement impossible. In addition, he employed a new technique calibration to mitigate those instrumental imperfections.

Currently Mdlalose is doing a PhD in Physics under supervision of Professor Yinzhe Ma and Professor Jonathan Sievers, exploring similar research but focusing on analysing real data from HERA-19 (located in SKA site, Karoo). His future goal is to complete his PhD by 2020 and then pursue a two-year postdoctoral degree. Ultimately, Mdlalose wants to lecture in the School of Chemistry and Physics.

Mdlalose was grateful to his supervisor, Professor Jonathan Sievers for his guidance and giving him opportunities to attend the Summer School programmes at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Toronto.

In his spare time, Mdlalose has a keen interest in Social Entrepreneurship. He is a founding member of the Afrikan Emancipation Student Movement (Afri-ESM) which is based at the Westville campus, UKZN.  One of his own ventures includes being part of a fast growing startup called Black Diamond Suit.

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Astrophysics Student Returns from Prestigious Research Programme

Miss Zahra Kader in front of the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) telescope in Narrabri, Australia.

Miss Zahra Kader, a student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU) recently returned from Australia where she participated in a summer vacation programme, sponsored by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The vacation programme was held over the 2017/2018 summer holidays for 11 weeks. Students from numerous countries applied to participate in this prestigious programme and Kader was one of the few to be selected. This programme provided an opportunity for high achieving students to receive astronomy training from leading CSIRO scientists using world class facilities.

Pulsars are objects in outer space which emit light. For this programme, Kader spent time searching for pulsars as well as trying to find a new method of detecting pulsars. She also had the privilege of working with Dr Shi Dai, a postdoctoral researcher who specialises in pulsar science. Kader did not find any new pulsars but learnt a great deal about pulsars, coding and research.

‘It was absolutely amazing to be able to work at the CSIRO Astronomy and Space department (CASS). Though I am not continuing to study pulsars for my masters, the skills that I obtained during this vacation project will help me in my future studies. Aside from the work, the staff at CSIRO encouraged us to explore the city during the weekends which we were only too happy to do. It was amazing to experience all that Sydney had to offer. It really is a beautiful city and I hope to visit again,’ said Kader. Kader plans to study a PhD in Astronomy at UKZN after completing her master’s degree and then aspires to become a Postdoctoral researcher at ACRU.

Kader hopes that more women will explore opportunities in science: ‘I think women should definitely not feel daunted to enter the world of science. There are women in CASS that really stand out and make immense contributions to science. If your passion lies in science, then you should definitely pursue it. You will be doing a great service to yourself and science,’ she said.

Kader has excelled in her undergraduate studies having attained numerous accolades. She will have the opportunity to make valuable contributions to the HIRAX telescope (UKZN’s flagship project) during her masters and PhD studies. This will hold her in good stead for her long-term scientific career and for advancing South African astronomy.

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