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NRF Facilities play an important role in the multi-messenger astronomy event; the start of a new field of astrophysics

Astronomical facilities of the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRF) contributed to the study of what is fast becoming one of the most widely studied events in the history of astrophysics; a direct detection of gravitational waves – ripples in space and time – in addition to light from spectacular collision of two neutron stars.

The international LIGO and Virgo collaborations announced today the first detection of gravitational waves produced by two colliding neutron stars. Through investigations of more than 70 astronomical facilities world-wide and in Earth orbit, this is also the very first time that gravitational waves (ripples in space-time) and light (electromagnetic waves) have been observed from the same object, opening a new window into a deeper understanding of the cosmos.

The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), and numerous telescopes hosted at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) Sutherland site, observed the event just over a day after the gravitational wave had passed through the Earth on August 17, 2017. A telescope in Chile first detected light from the merger of the two neutron stars in a galaxy 130 million light years from Earth. As soon as it was dark enough that evening in South Africa, SALT and other telescopes started observing the optical counterpart of the gravitational waves event dubbed GW170817.

Early observations in this case were very important, because the optical “afterglow” from the collision varies rapidly, becoming dimmer and changing in colour. The large complement of sensitive telescopes and instruments available in Sutherland allowed some crucial measurement to be done that will contribute to a better understanding of this remarkable event. This work will be presented in numerous articles to be published in international astronomical journals starting today.

Radio emission is expected from the fast-moving debris resulting from the merger of the two neutron stars heralded by GW170817. SKA South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope (part of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory) has observed the location of the merger on three dates since late August. So far it hasn’t detected a signal, despite very sensitive observations. SARAO’s HartRAO also participated in observations of this event through its inclusion in an international network of radio telescopes. While the aftermath of GW170817 initially dimmed quickly in visible light, it is expected to get brighter over the coming weeks at radio wavelengths. The partially built MeerKAT is already one of the world’s most sensitive telescopes of its kind, and upcoming observations will continue to monitor this extraordinary cosmic event.

Dr Molapo Qhobela, CEO of the NRF, said: “We congratulate the astronomy research facilities for the important role that they played in this unprecedented astronomical event. These South African contributions toward the study of this epoch-making event would not have been possible without the investment of the South African Government, through the NRF, in world-leading astronomical facilities and training of researchers in South Africa to use them. The quality of the facilities, including their ability to respond rapidly to fast-evolving events, and the connections developed by local researchers with their counterparts around the world, has allowed South Africa to play a meaningful role in the event announcing the birth of the new era of multi-messenger astronomy. The NRF looks forward to further discoveries in this new domain, and to ever greater participation of its facilities and the researchers of South Africa in these exciting endeavours.”

Time-domain astronomy, the study of the variable cosmos, is at the forefront of astrophysical research. With the coming availability of MeerKAT; with the novel MeerLICHT optical telescope in Sutherland that will simultaneously observe whatever MeerKAT is observing at radio wavelengths; with SAAO’s plans to make time-domain astronomy one of its focus areas; and with the recently secured access for South African researchers to the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), set to become in the next decade the world’s premier time-domain optical facility, the future for South African contributions in this area is indeed bright.

Please see below additional link to the SAAO press release, the gravitational papers and video:



Issued by: the National Research Foundation


For more information contact:
Thabiso Nkone
Corporate Communication Manager
E-mail: thabiso.nkone@nrf.ac.za
Tel: +27 12 481 4149

Stephen Potter
Head: Astronomy Division
E-mail: sbp@saao.ac.za
Tel: +27214609337

Steve Crawford
Astronomer: SALT Data Manager
E-mail: crawford@saao.ac.za
Tel: +27 21 460 9359

Lorenzo Raynard
SKA SA Head: Communication and Stakeholder Relations
E-mail: lraynard@ska.ac.za
Mobile: +27 71 454 0658


About the NRF: The National Research Foundation (NRF) is an independent statutory body set up in accordance with the National Research Foundation Act. Its mandate is to support research and promote research trough funding, human resource development and the provision of the necessary research facilities in order to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology, including indigenous knowledge, and thereby contribute to the improvement of the quality of life of all South

About the SAAO: The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) is a national facility of the NRF and the national centre for optical and infrared astronomy in South Africa. Its primary function is to conduct fundamental research in astronomy and astrophysics. SAAO oversees the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), located at its site near Sutherland, on behalf of an international consortium and promotes astronomy and astrophysics in Southern Africa.

About the SARAO: The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) is a national facility of the NRF and incorporates radio astronomy instruments and programmes such as MeerKAT and KAT-7 telescopes in the Karoo, the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) in Gauteng, the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry (AVN) programme in nine African countries as well as the associated human capital development and commercialisation endeavours.

The Square Kilometre Project in South Africa (SKA SA) is managed by SARAO and is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope.

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