Cape Town — Africa's bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio astronomy project could be a powerful driver for socio-economic development, South Africa's Minister for Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, said this week.
The bid, led by South Africa in a partnership with several other African countries, also aims to present the continent as a premier destination for scientific research.
The partner countries, which include Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia, seek to gain a substantial boost to their academic resources from their participation.
"Astronomy embraces all aspects of science, physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and in Africa in particular, research is the way forward to eradicate poverty and ignorance," Pandor told journalists at a news briefing.
She said R55 million (U.S. $7 million) has already been spent on human capital development for the SKA project. "From 2012 to 2017 an additional R200 million (U.S. 26 million) plus will be spent," she added.
During a workshop in May 2011, academics from the partner countries and other collaborating institutions co-ordinated a plan to bolster science and engineering throughout Africa, with the intention of providing an extensive pool of scientists and engineers to participate in future global astronomy projects.
Empowering youth has been a key aim for South Africa with the SKA project. In 2004, the Youth into Science and Engineering Programme was created to increase capacity in the engineering disciplines relevant to radio astronomy in Africa. To date, the project has supported 292 post-doctoral fellows and postgraduate and undergraduate students doing science or engineering degrees and research.
Since 2005, 398 SKA SA post-doctoral fellowships, PhD and MSc and undergraduate bursaries have been awarded - 70 to Africans from outside South Africa. Bosco Oruru of Uganda is completing his PhD in astrophysics at the University of the Free State in South Africa. An orphan, he believes studies in astronomy are key to solving society's greater problems.
South Africa and Mauritius will collaborate on what has been named the Multi-frequency Interferometry Telescope, or MITRA, in recognition of the Sanskrit word "mitra" that means "friend".
"The University of Mauritius and the Durban University of Technology are building stations with low-frequency antennae," said Pandor. "The University of Zambia has also expressed an interest in being a partner in this project. Low-cost stations can be erected all over Africa."
In what has been dubbed the "African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network" (VLBI, or AVN), further infrastructural development plans are under way to build or convert existing telecommunications antennae and connect them to a network for astronomy and geodesy purposes.
Ghana is converting an antenna and Nigeria is erecting a 25-metre telescope that will be included in the AVN. Minister Pandor also stated that information and technology (ICT) systems to be used in the SKA will incorporate next-generation technologies.