Lead student on the PRIZM radio telescope project Dr Liju Philip – who specialises in radio astronomy – graduated with a PhD in Physics from UKZN’s School of Chemistry and Physics

PRIZM is a new radio astronomy telescope that has been installed on Marion Island, one of the most remote and radio-quiet locations in the world, to search for the birth of the first stars.

The project on the island, which lies between Africa and Antarctica, was the first astronomy research venture to be conducted from Marion. Preliminary observations show that the site offers an exceptionally clean observing environment, surpassing even the Karoo.

Philip obtained his Bachelor of Engineering in Instrumentation Engineering from the University of Mumbai, and an MSc in Physics from Rhodes University. He embarked on his PhD journey through UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU), which has a well-equipped radio astronomy laboratory.

‘Both of my previous degrees helped me prepare myself for my PhD,’ said Philip. ‘My PhD work combined elements of both engineering and science, and my previous ventures helped me tackle the challenges efficiently.’

Philip has had an interest in astronomy since his school days in his home town of Mumbai in India where he developed the desire to design and build instruments to observe the universe.

‘South Africa is one of the most sought-after countries for ground-based radio astronomical research, especially with the upcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project,’ explained Philip. ‘The opportunities and access to a radio astronomy lab motivated me to pursue a PhD at UKZN.’

Philip’s research entailed the design, construction and deployment of the radio telescope, PRIZM, built to study the first stars that formed the universe. ‘PRIZM could help us understand the first stars and galaxies that formed a few hundred million years after the big bang,’ said Philip.

PRIZM was built entirely in UKZN’s radio astronomy laboratory with Philip playing a major role in designing and building the electronic components of the instrument. He also designed the mechanical support structures for the antennas to withstand heavy winds at the installation site.

‘Our team installed the telescope on Marion Island, which is a part of South Africa,’ explained Philip. ‘Observing from Marion comes with a variety of challenges. In terms of weather, Marion is extremely windy and wet, with limited sunshine. 

‘In addition to this, the whole island is infested with hungry mice that devour anything from live birds to sensitive electronics. Our team successfully overcame all the hurdles, and currently we have two experiments operating on Marion. The preliminary results looks very promising, and therefore we will be constantly expanding our efforts during future voyages.’

Philip is currently enjoying a well-deserved vacation with his family but wants to continue building astronomical instruments and exploring the cosmos.

His thesis, titled: The Design, Construction, and Deployment of PRIZM, was supervised by Professor Jon Sievers and Dr Cynthia Chiang. 

The work of the team has featured in the prestigious journal, Nature. It is also published in the Journal of Astronomical Instrumentation.

Words: Zolile Duma 

Photograph: Supplied