South Africa’s HIRAX telescope driving industry engagements

The Hydrogen and Real-time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX), led out of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), has deployed two new prototype telescope dish designs, one aluminium and the other fibreglass, at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) Hartebeesthoek site near Johannesburg. The fibreglass dish was designed and manufactured by MMS Technology in Pretoria, and the aluminium dish was designed and manufactured through a partnership between NJV Consulting and Rebcon in Durban. Funding for the HIRAX prototype dishes was provided by UKZN and the Department of Science and Technology through the National Research Foundation.

This milestone marks the successful completion of months of collaboration between the HIRAX project, and local engineering and manufacturing firms, and brings HIRAX one step closer to the installation of the full 1024-dish array in a compact configuration on the HIRAX main site in the Karoo.  This telescope will enable research in the evolution of dark energy through hydrogen intensity mapping, and research on transient radio sources such as fast radio bursts (FRBs) and pulsars. Dark energy is a mysterious force in the universe that scientists believe is acting against gravity to cause an accelerated expansion of the universe. FRBs are mysterious millisecond extragalactic flashes in the sky of unknown origin.

Collaboration on the dish design started in the beginning of 2018 with the purpose of defining final dish requirements for the project. The design of these 6-metre dishes has strict tolerances on the shape, surface accuracy, and receiver position. The mechanical design also allows for the manual repointing of the dishes every few months, enabling the instrument to map about a third of the sky over a five-year period while minimizing cost by eliminating the need for active drive mechanisms.

HIRAX will instrument and analyse the two new prototype dishes over the next few months to develop the final requirements for an open tender for the first 256 dishes to be installed at the HIRAX main site in the Karoo. SARAO Managing Director Rob Adam said: “After the successful testing at our Hartbeeshoek site we are looking forward to hosting HIRAX at our site in the Karoo. We always had the idea that the SKA site would prove to be an attractor for other leading-edge global astronomy projects and this is turning out to be the case.”

This installation could not have been achieved without the support of the professional staff at the SARAO Hartebeesthoek site. In this context the experience and domain knowledge of SARAO staff have been harnessed to provide support and technical assistance for various aspects of the HIRAX project.   All of the current antenna prototyping work is being conducted at the SARAO Hartebeesthoek observatory site, and SARAO staff at the site have assisted with the installation and testing of the dishes, and the execution of the associated civil infrastructure work.

Cynthia Chiang, HIRAX Instrumentation Lead, Professor at McGill University and Fractional Professor at UKZN, said: “In order to deliver high-precision science, HIRAX has stringent specifications that require custom-built telescope dishes. The two new dishes from MMS and Rebcon represent a significant milestone toward achieving HIRAX’s goals, and they will be crucial for informing the final instrument design”. Both MMS and the NJV/Rebcon collaboration worked hand-in-hand with the HIRAX project to produce prototype designs that will inform final dish requirements for the HIRAX project.

Kavilan Moodley alongside the newly installed MMS prototype dish at the SARAO Hartebeesthoek site.

The MMS dish was installed in August 2019 by their team led by Heinrich Bauermeister and consists of a fine aluminium mesh embedded in fibreglass. The MMS dish can tilt in elevation 30 degrees either side of zenith. MMS director Heinrich Bauermeister said: “Designing and manufacturing this dish was a serious trade-off between performance and cost. For this reason, the mount was kept as low and simple as possible and the dish itself as thin as possible without compromising too much on performance. The single piece composite material dish does not need any post-manufacturing setup, and the mount is low enough to facilitate easy adjustment of the dish elevation by one person.”

The 10-dish HIRAX prototype array in the foreground featuring the newly installed NJV Consulting/Rebcon dish at the front and centre. The 26m dish at the SARAO Hartebeesthoek site is visible in the background.

The NJV/Rebcon dish was installed in October 2019 by their team, led by Warren Butler, who indicated that “team input of the design development was dynamic to incorporate practical solutions regarding assembly/disassembly, transportation, ease of installation on site in a remote location and serviceability of the prototype once installed”.

“The design intent was realized by a form of laser-cut profiled aluminium elements which provided the parabolic accuracy the project required. The appropriate skills and collaboration has resulted in a practical buildable and easily erectable structure, that is fully recyclable”, he added.

The dish is made of aluminium mesh with an aluminium backing structure. Furthermore, it is fixed in azimuth and can tilt in elevation down to the horizon. Of the collaboration between the HIRAX project and NJV Consulting/Rebcon, Linda Ness, Director of NJV Consulting (Pty) Ltd asserted: “Collaboration between designer and fabricator on unusual engineering fabrications at conceptual stage is invaluable, and this was one of those great opportunities. Early interaction like this allows cross-over of skills between the two companies, who have worked together for many years. With multiple units in mind, material optimisation, repeat fabrication and erection are key. Detailed structural modelling analyses and finer stress design work could then be downstream from wholly considered upfront thinking, sketching and deliberation together with the scientists.”

The HIRAX team hopes that these partnerships are the first of many to come between the project and South African industry. In addition to collaborating on HIRAX dish hardware, the project hopes to manufacture some of its subsystems in South Africa, work with local technology companies to develop big data analysis tools, and hire local labour for the deployment of the instrument in the Karoo. Kavilan Moodley, Principal Investigator of the project and Professor at UKZN, emphasised: “Through these and future collaborations with industry and the scientific community, the project endeavours to build technical capacity nationally as South Africa increases its radio astronomy portfolio through MeerKAT and the development towards the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).”

Prestigious Award for Astrophysicist’s Masters Thesis

S2A3 Medal winner, Ms Chevarra Hansraj.

The thesis Ms Chevarra Hansraj presented for her master’s degree has been selected as the best in the area of Sciences and Applied Sciences at UKZN in 2018, winning her an award from the SA Association for the Advancement of Science. The Association presents only one such award – the S2A3 medal – to each university in South Africa every year.

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Thrill-Seeking Problem Solver Awarded Scholarship

DVC Scholarship winner Mr Keegan Trehaeven with Professor Naven Chetty.

The thrill of finding solutions has always driven Mr Keegan Trehaeven’s interest in Maths and Physics. Trehaeven is a third-year student pursuing a Bachelor of Science qualification in Applied Maths and Astronomy, at the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science.

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All in the Stars for Prestige Award Winner

DVC Scholarship winner Ms Shavani Naicker with her proud family, father Karthigan, mother Soogandri and sister Lavanya.

Black holes in space are what fascinate Ms Shavani Naicker, a third-year Bachelor of Science student who received a College Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship in recognition of her top performance over two or more years of undergraduate study. Naicker is one of three top-ranked undergraduates in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science to receive this honour, awarded to students proceeding from second to subsequent years of study.

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“Big Data in Astronomy” Opens Doors for Honours Student

Computer Science Honours Student, Ms Lisa Dayaram.

Ms Lisa Dayaram, an Honours student in Computer Science on the Westville campus spent a study week at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in June. The visit was funded by the Swiss-South Africa bilateral agreement.

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“Big Data” for Science and Society Launch Goes Big!

From left: Professors Deresh Ramjugernath, Francesco Petruccione, Onisimo Mutanga, Kavilan Moodley, Maheshvari Naidu and Kesh Govinder at the Big Data for Science and Society project launch.

With the launch of the Big Data for Science and Society (BDSS) project, UKZN’s Big Data and Informatics’ Research Flagship plans to transform research by creating scientific and socio-economic impacts.
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Image credit: Albert Hirasen

R9m Boost to Big Data Research Flagship Project

Principal Investigators on the Flagship project (from left) Professor Kavilan Moodley, Professor Maheshvari Naidu and Professor Onisimo Mutanga.

UKZN has invested just over R9 million to kickstart the Big Data for Science and Society (BDSS) Flagship Project – one of three such projects to receive financial backing from the programme.

The Research Flagship Programme concentrates on four broad areas: Social Cohesion, African Health, Big Data and Informatics, and African Cities of the Future.

UKZN’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research Professor Deresh Ramjugernath emphasised the purpose of the Flagship Programme was to ‘promote research that has socio-economic impact and relevance to society and UKZN stakeholders, with the emphasis being on projects which are impactful, implementable and spur economic growth and social upliftment.’

The BDSS Project will support this mission through multi-disciplinary, cross-flagship, and cross-college collaboration in big data research that will have a significant scientific and social impact. The benefits of the cross-disciplinary approach include leveraging big data expertise to advance University-wide big data research projects in disciplines where large datasets currently exist but are not being fully exploited.

Three Principal Investigators (PIs) will lead the flagship project. They are Professor Kavilan Moodley – Astrophysics; Professor Maheshvari Naidu – Geospatial Humanities, and Professor Onisimo Mutanga – Earth Observation. In addition, the project has a number of Co-Investigators (Co-Is) from the fields of computer science and computer engineering, physics, statistics, psychology, management and information systems, and information and communication services.

The BDSS team comprises members from three Colleges: the College of Law and Management Studies, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, and the College of Humanities.

The project will deploy interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary data-driven techniques that will blur the boundaries between disciplines resulting in scientific and societal benefits spanning a wide variety of topics ranging from dark energy, to climate change and urbanisation, to mobility and migration.

Professor in Anthropology, Academic Leader of Research in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and PI on the BDSS project, Professor Maheshvari Naidu, highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of the BDSS Flagship project. ‘This particular Flagship Project cements meaningful collaboration among a wide spectrum of disciplines. It’s particularly exciting for aspects of what can be described as computational social sciences,’ said Naidu.

‘One of the initiatives will be to work with colleagues from Physics and Computer Science to explore machine learning (ML) tools in the context of social science narrative data. The aim is to work towards a model that is adapted to heterogeneous and unstructured social science textual data. This kind of work will, in turn, allow social scientists to probe social science issues on a scale not imaginable in the past in the context of ML, Geographic Information System (GIS) and data mining,’ she said.

Innovative research in the BDSS flagship project will include:

  •  Utilisation of big data from key Astrophysics telescope projects, such as the Hydrogen Intensity and Real-time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX), the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, and the Meer – Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT) to develop big data pipelines, which will allow scientists to perform cutting-edge science in the topics of dark energy and fast radio bursts.
  •  Extraction and analysis of big data from Earth Observation sources to conduct invasive species mapping in the context of climate change for better understanding of the ecological impacts of invasive species and the overall impacts of climate change.
  •  Curation and analysis of big data from Geo-Spatial Humanities to map spatial patterns and human mobility through GIS.
  •  The utilisation of large datasets from Twitter to develop new and expand on existing ML sentiment algorithms that will provide insights into social enactments, raced, and gendered relations.
  •  Development of domain-specific ML and Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques and algorithms that are tailor-made to discover patterns in data sets, intelligent data mining, and quantum computing techniques for big data analysis
  •  The utilisation of statistical clustering and data mining techniques for big data analysis including spatial clustering and data mining methods that will create a cohesive ‘picture’ that can be used to investigate selected social science phenomenon

Associate Professor in Astrophysics at UKZN, HIRAX PI and PI on the project, Professor Kavilan Moodley, extolled the benefits of this substantial project. ‘The BDSS flagship project will support big data research in a number of high-profile astronomy projects that seek to uncover the secrets of the universe. New techniques developed for these projects will also be applied to big datasets in other disciplines, resulting in important scientific and societal advances,’ said Moodley.

The scientific and socio-economic impact of this research will be magnified through collaboration with a strategic group of partners who will enable project sustainability and broaden the impact of programme outputs. These partnerships and key links include national government organisations such as the National Research Foundation, South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and South African National Parks. These organisations will support big data research in a multitude of topics and disciplines such as radio astronomy, biodiversity, land use planning and management, and wildlife management.

There will also be partnerships with local government through shared collaborative centres that will promote human capital development through big data innovations and technology spin-offs into industry. BDSS will also work with a number of multi-disciplinary research centres including the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research, the Astrophysics Research Centre, and the UKZN-based Andrew Mellon funded Spatial Humanities Project. These research centres provide data processing, ML, and AI expertise and linkages with governments and end users.

Finally, the project boasts a growing number of international partners that currently span nine institutions in six different countries.

Professor in Ecological Remote Sensing and GIS at UKZN, the SA Research Chairs’ Initiative Chair in Land use Planning and Management and project PI, Professor Onisimo Mutanga, said: ‘The 4th industrial revolution big data research direction opens up avenues to integrating rem

ote sensing data, advanced climate information, crop/agro hydrological models and machine learning tools for early warning systems on environmental perturbations. This makes informed decisions on climate risk and adaptive land use management.’

In addition to the societal and scientific impacts resulting from the research itself, the flagship’s projects are also geared at developing local staff and students. BDSS will focus on equity and gender transformation of students, postdoctoral fellows and senior researchers, and support the funding of additional postdoctoral fellows and graduate students to work together across disciplines and with the project’s many external partners. This cross-disciplinary co-supervision and collaboration model will promote skills development in both big data techniques and their application across disciplines. The training of transdisciplinary PhD-level students and postdoctoral fellows will have a long-term impact on society by boosting student entrepreneurship, increasing job growth and raising the local and national gross domestic product.

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Swiss-SA Astronomy Big Data Workshop

UKZN’s Professor Kavilan Moodley and Dr Martin Kunz of the University of Geneva who are Principal Investigators for the Swiss/South African Joint Research Programme (SSAJRP).

Scientists and astronomers from Switzerland and South Africa recently discussed Astronomy Big Data were at a bilateral workshop which unpacked how challenging astronomy problems involving Big Data could be solved using Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Big Bata refers to the study and applications of data-sets that are so big and complex that traditional data-processing software are rendered ineffective. The key challenge surrounding Big Data is to turn it into information and knowledge that has commercial value, brings scientific and technological advances or has a broader impact on society.

The workshop was a part of the Swiss/South African Joint Research Programme (SSAJRP), a collaborative platform in astronomy to address the scientific Big Data challenge faced by pathfinder telescopes to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) such as UKZN’s HIRAX (Hydrogen Intensity Mapping and Real-time Analysis Experiment), MeerKAT (Meer Karoo Array Telescope), the BINGO (BAO from Integrated Neutral Gas Observations) telescope, and the DES (Dark Energy Survey) telescope.

The principal investigators for the projects in the SSAJRP- Professor Kavilan Moodley of UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research and Dr Martin Kunz of the University of Geneva (UNIGE)- have extensive expertise in the required methods and techniques and are well placed to make significant contributions to the project. The Swiss-South African collaboration entails scientists developing methodologies and tools to build a framework to solve the challenges they face. Developing this framework and associated methodologies will result in cutting-edge discoveries in fundamental science that will benefit other fields of science using Big Data such as geospatial sciences and climate science as well as a variety of industries.

The workshop comprised two days of information exchange and discussions about the plan for the projects and how they fit into the overall collaborative project. Some of the topics covered by the speakers featured 21cm cosmology, next-generation modelling for connecting HI (atomic hydrogen) to dark matter, data challenges relating to the HIRAX telescope, quantum machine learning and data processing in cosmology using the examples of Planck and Euclid.

The proposed workflow that was discussed incorporates a number of different aspects of the Big Data challenge, including a data acquisition layer which is proposed to validate the measured data through calibration and high-end instrument model calibration. The data measurement process also involves pre-processing and sampling of the large pathfinder datasets. These techniques will ensure a high fidelity of data and a model to test for systematic effects in the data measurement process. The data analysis layer involves theoretical modelling that involves mathematical and computational techniques. Machine learning techniques will extract significant value from the large pathfinder datasets and offer the promise of new scientific discoveries.

‘This bilateral project between South Africa and Switzerland represents a great opportunity for both countries to profit from each other in terms of experience, knowledge and access to astronomical data,’ said Kunz. ‘I should add that every visit to South Africa, like on the occasion of this workshop, is a pleasure thanks to the warm and kind hospitality that is unfailingly extended to us.’

“The workshop was extremely productive and resulted in knowledge sharing and collaborative plans to guide various projects. The Swiss-South African collaboration will create high-impact outcomes that will address astronomy big data challenges” added Moodley.

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TATA Doctoral Scholarship for Astronomy Whizz

Ms Sinehlanhla Precious Sikhosana receives a TATA Doctoral Scholarship.

Ms Sinehlanhla Precious Sikhosana received a TATA Doctoral Scholarship at the Department of Science and Technology (DST) South African Women in Science Awards in Polokwane last week.

Sikhosana is one of three doctoral candidates to be awarded the honour for women working in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics where female participation is low.

Sikhosana, who is based in the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU), is conducting PhD research involving investigations into diffuse radio emission in galaxy clusters; work that she hopes will improve current scaling relations of the diffuse emissions and theories around the evolution of galaxy clusters. Sikhosana is passionate about empowering future generations in the sciences and hopes her research will inspire more young South African women to consider a career in Astronomy, which has few female scientists.

‘It is humbling to know that my hard work is being recognised at a national level,’ she said, adding, ‘The scholarship includes traveling grants, equipment grants and enables other activities that contribute towards improving my research. Most importantly, a public platform like this gives us a chance to inspire women to join the science field and stay in it.’

Named one of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science’s (CAES) Wonder Women in Science in 2017, Sikhosana has received a number of accolades over the course of her academic career, including the Hope Scholarship from the Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering (SAWISE) which enabled her to travel to Princeton University for a month in 2014 as well as a full undergraduate scholarship from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). She is also a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society at UKZN which enabled her to attend the International Scholar Laureate Programme hosted in Washington DC and New York in 2013. In March 2018, she presented her work at the American Astronomical Society’s ‘SnowCluster 2018: The Physics of Galaxy Clusters’ conference in Utah. She also presented her research at the ‘Hot spots in the XMM sky: Cosmology from X-ray to Radio’ conference in Mykonos in 2016 and was awarded the top prize for her oral presentation at the CAES Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium in 2015.

Sikhosana was among the top performing students in CAES between 2011 and 2013 and achieved her undergraduate and Honours degrees cum laude. She is passionate about giving back to the community, having tutored numerous high school pupils and undergraduate students.

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Zac Yacoob Scholarship Award for Aspiring Astrophysicist


Mr Dalian Sunder receives his award from Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim, CAPRISA Associate Scientific Director.

Mr Dalian Sunder, a BSc Applied Mathematician and Physics graduate, received the Zac Yacoob Scholarship Award at this year’s annual Scholarship Awards ceremony.

Youngest in his family, Mr Sunder recollects how his interest in outer-space blossomed to his passion for Maths and Physics during high school. At a tender age, Mr Sunder would spend hours at the library with his mother reading up on the universe and outer-space.

‘I was always fascinated by outer space from a young age. I would memorise facts such as Yuri Gagarin who in 1961 became the first man to journey to outer space. I always annoyed my parents with questions about everything. My mom should spend hours with me in the non-fictional section of the library, and it was there that I developed an interest for outer space and trying to understand how the universe works. This passion only grew throughout high school, and thus led me to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree,’ said Sunder.

He graduated earlier this year summa cum laude with a BSc degree in Applied Maths and Physics. He is currently pursuing a BSc Honours degree in Applied Maths. With this scholarship, he feels he will be able to accomplish his goals of becoming an astrophysicist.

‘I plan on continuing with postgraduate research at Master’s level. This will allow me to build on my current knowledge and delve deeper into topics that were introduced in my undergrad studies which will also prepare me for PhD studies. This is a step forward in becoming an astrophysicist,’ said Sunder.

For Sunder, receiving this scholarship is not only validation of his hard work but also serves as a motivation to continue in the same diligent streak in future.

‘The scholarship means acknowledgment of past work and motivation to work harder in the future. It is the happiness on my parents’ faces. It creates a sense of accomplishment. In short, it means a lot to me. I would like to make a special thanks to God, without whom, none of this would be possible. I also especially thank my parents for their endless support and encouragement, but most importantly, for selflessly sacrificing so much for me. Without them, I certainly would not be here today. You could say I stand on the shoulders of giants,’ he said, also extending gratitude to the scholarship donors.

‘Thank you for acknowledging my efforts. It is uplifting and shows your confidence in my generation. I thank you for your overwhelming generosity and will strive to emulate it in the future,’ says Mr Sunder.

Professor Kavilan Moodley, Mr Sunder’s lecturer, said he (Sunder) has performed exceptionally well in his undergraduate degree and has a bright research career ahead in the field of astrophysics and cosmology.