25 May 2012

Africa: Southern Africa and Australasia to Share SKA

Photo: Square Kilometre Array
Radio dishes for the KAT-7 array.

Pretoria — South Africa and Australia are to share the hosting of world's most powerful radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the SKA Board decided at a meeting in the Netherlands today (25 May).

This is despite the conclusions of an independent site advisory committee, which carried out an objective technical and scientific assessment of sites that had been proposed in each of the two countries, and identified the South African site as being the preferred one (although both sites were found to be suitable).

The SKA Organisation, the international body responsible for the construction and operation of the telescope, has now agreed to split the project, on the grounds that it would make it inclusive, and also maximize return on the investments that have been made so far. Two of the receiver components will be constructed in Africa, and one in Australia.

"We accept the compromise in the interest of science, and in acknowledgement of the sterling work done by our scientists and the excellent SKA project team," said South Africa's Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, speaking in Pretoria after the decision was announced.

"We celebrate the good news that the majority of this global scientific enterprise will be built in Africa," Pandor said.

The African bid to host the SKA was led by South Africa, and included commitments from eight partner countries on the continent: Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya, Namibia, Zambia, Mauritius and Madagascar.

An important aspect of the site decision was the recognition of the MeerKAT telescope, which is being designed and built in the Northern Cape by South African scientists and engineers, as a critical step towards the implementation of the SKA.

The South African government has allocated more than 500 million rand (around US$60 million) to the SKA in the current financial year, and had agreed to exempt the SKA from value added tax, if the country was successfully in securing the bid.

The Australian SKA Pathfinder similarly serves as a precursor to the SKA. The almost US$100-million project entails the construction of an array of thirty-six twelve-metre dishes in the Mid-West region of Western Australia. The Australian bid was also supported by New Zealand.

According to Justin Jonas, project leader of the South African SKA team, the decision to split the telescope will have cost implications, since infrastructure will have to be duplicated in the two locations.

"But the split will in no way compromise the science that will be done with this instrument," he said.

The US$1.8 billion SKA project involves the construction of an array of 3,000 radio telescope dishes and will require estimated US$125-190 million a year to operate and maintain.

The project will be funded and run through an international consortium made up of 67 organisations in 20 different countries. Now that the sites have been decided on, a more accurate estimate of the costing can be done for the construction of the instrument.

The core of that part of the SKA telescope which is hosted by South Africa will be located near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, with antenna stations in Namibia, Botswana and the other African partner countries.

African supporters of SKA have argued that it has the potential to boost the number of Africa's scientists and technicians, and stimulate Africa to play an increasingly important role in the global knowledge economy.

In support of its bid, South Africa has already awarded more than 400 grants and bursaries to researchers, and supported almost a 100 MSc and PhD students. It has also provided 16 bursaries to students from the rural areas in the Northern Cape province to study technical skills in the areas of welding, plumbing, electrical, bricklaying, carpentry and motor mechanics.

"I think it could potentially benefit local science, but we have a lot of work ahead of us - we need to make sure the benefit spreads as far as possible, particularly into our schools system," said Claire Flanagan, director of the Planetarium at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

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