In 2018, Thoughtworks, a consultancy specialising in software and digital transformation, revealed a two-year collaboration with the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune. Their joint effort was aimed to create, assess, and implement automated data processing software tailored for the MeerKAT radio telescope. Now the efforts have borne fruit.

The MeerKAT Radio Telescope has gained prominence in recent years. Unlike optical telescopes, which capture signals only at night, MeerKAT, a radio telescope, receives signals throughtout the day and night.

Launched in 2018, MeerKAT is operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), a national research facility funded by the Government of South Africa. MeerKAT was later integrated into the global Square Kilometre Array (SKA) initiative, which entails cooperation among numerous nations.

Comprising 64 antennas, MeerKAT plays a pivotal role as a precursor to the SKA, set to be the world’s most sensitive and powerful radio telescope, spanning two continents in the Southern Hemisphere — South Africa and Australia.

MeerKAT was originally named the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) with 20 receptors. It was later renamed “MeerKAT” when the South African government expanded the budget to build 64 receptors.

The radio telescope showed promising results in February 2023 when scientists using the MeerKAT made a surprising discovery while studying a distant galaxy. They found large hydrogen atoms known as Rydberg atoms, which had never been observed in a distant galaxy before. (A Rydberg atom refers to an atom with an electron in a high energy state). These atoms appear to be scattered throughout the galaxy in ionised interstellar gas clouds. This discovery could provide insights into interstellar gas in galaxies and the formation of Rydberg atoms in space.

ThoughtWorks’ involvement revolves around the creation of an automated radio telescope image processing pipeline(ARTIP). “We have been collaborating with Dr Neeraj Gupta from IUCAA, and he put in a proposal to observe the sky for gas absorptions. This survey is called the MeerKAT Absorption Line Survey,” says Chhaya Dhanani, Portfolio Head Engineering for Research, Thoughtworks. MALS is now studying how active black holes interact with cold gas in galaxies, providing insights into black hole fuelling and galaxy evolution through absorption lines.

Dhanani says the ARTIP pipeline is completely automated. “In the past, processing a 1 TB dataset manually would take several months and could lead to errors. With automation, we can analyse such data in just 30 minutes to an hour, ensuring accurate results,” she adds. This has also led to critical discoveries. It helped identify a “OH radical” outside Milky Way galaxy. The finding hints at the possibility of finding water (H₂O) in outer space.

However, there is a long way to go. “The scientist has an observation time of about 1,600 hours (about 2 months). We are expecting our data size of around 1.7 beta byte to come along, and the pipeline is going to be used to process it,” says Dhanani.

Radio astronomy, a branch of astronomy focused on studying the sky using radio frequencies, involves handling large volumes of data. This presents a hurdle for radio astronomers as it demands substantial data processing and analysis to convey scientific findings effectively. “From a scientific perspective, it attempts to answer many theories around the origin of life and cosmology, and from a technological perspective, it has given rise to a lot of innovation in terms of high-end computers,” adds Dhanani.