6 December 2011

South Africa: Africa Shoots Beyond Stars in Radio Telescope Bid

Photo: SKA Africa
The Karoo Array Telescope, or MeerKAT, is a demonstrator radio telescope which is already being built.


South Africa's science and technology minister, Naledi Pandor, reflects a face of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) which is often eclipsed by populist rhetoric, party succession battles and an assault on the power of the courts.

Since her grandfather won renown as an academic in South and east Africa from the 1920s, her family has played a leading role in education and in political struggles, and Pandor herself is an educationalist with degrees and diplomas from the universities of Botswana and Swaziland, London, Harvard and Stellenbosch.

Now she is heading a bid to secure for Africa the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a radio telescope aimed at seeing so far out into space as to look back almost to the origins of the universe. South Africa, with eight African countries as partners, is a bid finalist, along with Australia. If Africa wins, the SKA will include antennae dishes, or lenses, in nine countries--to achieve the required combined lens surface area of a square kilometre, as well as to span the thousands of square kilometres needed to achieve the highest resolution pictures. (A fundamental equation relates the diameter of a lens to the resolution of images, but the collecting lens does not need to be a single surface.) Pandor discussed the SKA with AllAfrica on the sidelines of the COP17 talks on the environment in South Africa.

Tell us what the SKA is about and what it will do.

Every astronomer's dream is to be able to answer the unanswered questions about the universe. Everyone wants to discover: how did the world begin? What is it made of? When the Big Bang happened, what actually happened? And that little part of the universe called the Black Hole, which hasn't been fully explored as yet, what's contained within it? When did we get the first stars? Is there life on some other planet?

There are many, many questions which have been explored, but the full answers are not yet known. Scientists and astronomers have been asking these questions for decades, from way before Galileo. So now they are saying, 'We think we can develop a scientific instrument which will allow us to probe the deepest recesses of the universe and to get images that will provide us with data that assists us to answer these questions'. It will be the most powerful radio telescope ever built in the world.

And tell us about the MeerKAT?

Both South Africa, leading an Africa bid, and Australia, along with New Zealand and some of the Pacific island countries, are required by the governing council [responsible for running the bidding process] to build a demonstrator telescope. This project is like an adventure--really, it's an experiment. No one is certain that we are able successfully to build a mega facility of this kind and do the science that the astronomers believe we will be able to do.

Australia is building what is called the anzSKA, and we are building the MeerKAT. A meerkat is that animal that is found along the Karoo [a semi-desert region of South Africa]. It pokes its head up, very curious. And, of course, we are looking for information, so it's also a curious instrument!

We believe those 64 dishes which are the MeerKAT radio telescope will afford us an opportunity to do very good science. Our belief in MeerKAT is confirmed by the fact that already we have over 50 research groups from all over the world--including Australia--that have booked to use the MeerKAT once it is fully on stream, which is only in 2016.

These SKA images, by the time they've reached us, their origins will be from millions of years ago?

Millions and millions of years ago, and this is where the power of the telescope needs to be very, very strong. This means in terms of your data processing you want to have programs that can allow you to get the most brilliant pictures.

We've begun to get some data from our KAT-7 telescope, because we've built the first seven dishes of the MeerKAT and they are operational from the end of July this year. We've begun to gather images; you get the data, and then you transmit it and convert it into imagery. And that means that even your information communication technology specialists play a role, because they have to develop the software for you to be able to make the conversions from data captured into actual imagery.

What is the total cost of the project?

From our side we have invested over R1 billion [90 million Euros]. The partnership has said the calculation at initial estimates is about 2.5 billion Euros. The scientists believe it to be much more than that, but the design phase will only begin once the site is determined.

So that again would be a major investment in Africa and one of the reasons why we would like to have this located on the African continent.

It will be important foreign direct investment in the African continent, but it also gives us a resource that is durable, which would be used by scientists for more than four decades. We believe this will be an epic scientific infrastructure which will bring thousands of scientists into the nine partner countries in the African continent.

How do you think Africa's intellectual heritage is reflected in the bid for the SKA?

It's reflected in many ways. Firstly, many people believe that Africa does not have scientific competence; they don't think that we have engineers, astrophysicists, mathematicians. I've been astounded at how many there are, but who are not working in Africa, because we don't provide them with the scientific resources and infrastructure to continue to do research.

So I think what we are going to see with the Square Kilometre Array, if we win the bid, is a return to Africa of intellectuals--researchers, scientists that we've lost over many years. So I believe we will get a "brain gain" as part of achieving this very big project. We have a tradition in Africa of people pursuing education, pursuing high skills. Of course we need to do much more. We still don't have enough post-graduate qualified persons on the continent, and our universities have been impacted upon very negatively by the range of financial crises we've had in the past.

But you are seeing a regeneration of higher education on the African continent: you're seeing new universities being built; there has been very strong attention in Uganda to Makerere University and its revival; you're seeing the University of Nairobi being extended; Botswana considering a second university. Governments have begun to recognise that there can't only be universal primary education. You must attend to higher education as well because having those persons trained at a senior level allows you to provide the quality support that you need in the schooling and college system to give you the intellectual resources for your country to advance in economic and social terms.

If Africa wins the bid, do you think it will have an impact on African academic institutions?

Oh, absolutely. It already has. There are eight other countries partnering with South Africa: Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, Mozambique, Kenya, Madagascar and Zambia. These countries have played a very important role in giving effect to the practical steps necessary for successfully competing in this bid. What has been fascinating is that as part of the project we have initiated a human capital development programme, where we are supporting young people to pursue honours, masters and doctoral degrees under the auspices of the Square Kilometre Array. We have a very, very vigorous bursary programme. Up to this point we have provided over 303 bursaries in the period 2005 to 2011. I've been thrilled at the number of young people who are participating. We've produced 25 PhDs already in that period.

These are all young people from Africa, but what's great is that the programme is international. We have young people from all over the world. The African impact is that now, suddenly, at Eduardo Mondlane University [in Mozambique], a Master's student who came out of our bursary programme has been appointed a lecturer in astronomy. In Rwanda, we have an emerging astronomy programme at the university. In Kenya, you're seeing a programme being developed at the University of Nairobi.

We are working with Ghana to build a radio astronomy observatory, and we are already working on converting a communication satellite dish into an astronomy radio facility.

So we are partnering on a range of projects. Higher education courses are being influenced by the Square Kilometre Array. Vice-chancellors are excited, professors of astronomy have a new life. Suddenly engineering, physics, mathematics have young people saying, 'We want to know about this project; we'd like to get the skills to work on it, because we think it's a big project for Africa. We would really want to do our research there; we want to publish our articles on the work being done there; we want to tell the world the story about Africa and astronomy'.

Do you worry that South African political controversies - over the Protection of State Information Act, the leadership of the ANC Youth League, over the consistency of foreign policy--do you worry that those might prejudice South Africa's bid?

I think we have to show as a government that we are committed to the Square Kilometre Array and to ensuring that scientists are able to do excellent science in South Africa. This means we must keep the stability that we have achieved in the 17 years of democracy. We must continue to work hard at ensuring that our economy thrives. We are one of the countries in the world where we continue to have economic growth. It's negligible; we're worried that it is too little, but we are growing. We continue to wage the fight that we must against crime, to invest in education. So I think one shouldn't be focused on political talk out there. What you look at is government policy; and government is very clear as to what its policy perspective is and where it is investing the national budget.

We haven't taken up any Youth League proposal as government policy. So until it is written up in a bill in this country, it's merely a debate, which is something that you must have in a democracy. We don't do policy development by way of public statement; we do it through a proper process in government.

The Protection of State Information Bill is still being considered by one of the houses of Parliament, so we don't know what the final outcome would be. A great deal of noise has been made about it, but I'm not sure that we've all read it as carefully as we should. I think everybody should read it, and then they should articulate what the particular clauses are that they believe are inadequate and how these stand against existing legislation which protects whistle-blowers in South Africa.

What do you think the African SKA bid has that the Australian bid does not?

I think we have an excellent site. I believe the opportunity to grow the astronomy sciences exists here. We have one of the youngest populations of the world on the African continent. I think we will renew astrophysics, we'll renew astronomy, we'll renew mathematics, I think we'll create a platform where the best science can be done. Our government and our people are committed to this project. Our engineers are absolutely excited. We offer all the facilities: we have roads; we have the best infrastructure; our information communication companies are committed to supporting us; we have the communications network; we have the power sources. So all the necessary elements for beginning the project are on the ground, and we are ready to go the moment the decision is made. We don't have to build a road. We don't have to clear any bush. We don't have to put up electric power sources. It's all available. We are ready to go.

Anything more that you would like to add?

I hope young people on the African continent will take an interest in projects such as the Square Kilometre Array--that they will join many hundreds of people who have taken up the bursary opportunities. More particularly, I hope our parents and our communities will encourage young Africans to study maths and science subjects at school. We have to increase the pool at the foundation level in order to ensure that we have the high-level skills to begin to build a knowledge economy on the African continent that gives us a sustainable development prospect.

So please encourage young people to do maths and science and succeed in it at school. Help our teachers to be competent teachers in mathematics, in physical sciences as well as life sciences. That really is the future, and I would like to say to the African continent, let's use research, science and technology as the basis for the future progress of Africa.

Read more about the legacy of Pandor's family >>

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