SKA to ‘transform perceptions of Africa’

27 March 2014

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope will transform perceptions of Africa, Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said on Wednesday, ahead of Thursday’s launch of the first antenna of South Africa’s SKA precursor, the MeerKAT.

“With SKA, things will definitely change. Africa will no longer be the receiver but a major contributor to technology, and hopefully young scientists on the continent will benefit,” Henekom said.

The minister was speaking to the media in Pretoria after the first ministerial meeting of the nine SKA African partner countries: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.

The SKA will be a mega telescope about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope. It will include 500 000 antennas scattered across southern Africa and Australia. Phase 1 of the SKA will be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia, while Phase 2 will see the eight countries partnering with South Africa. Construction is expected to begin in 2017 and conclude in 2024, at an estimated cost to the SKA member countries of €1.5-billion.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the nine African countries signed a SKA readiness strategy and joint implementation plan stipulating the resources in time, funds and human capital to be made available by each country by 2015.

“We encourage each partner country to work towards establishing relevant human capital development programmes and instruments aimed at building a new pipeline of researchers, scientists and engineers, technical skills and expertise for the successful implementation and substainability of the SKA and other radio astronomy programmes and initiatives,” a communique issued after the meeting reads.

Towards an African telescope network

The nine countries also plan to mobilise the funding and technical resources needed to realize Africa’s own vision for radio astronomy, which includes the creation of an African-owned network of radio telescopes – capable of supporting an African very long baseline interferometry network – in the nine SKA partner countries.

Very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) is an astronomical technique that uses widely separated radio telescopes in unison to simulate a single telescope hundreds or thousands of kilometres in diameter, producing the clearest, highest resolution images of some of the most distant objects in the universe.

The greater the distance between the telescopes, the greater the resolution of the images produced in this way. Africa’s large north-south geographical spread would therefore make for a powerful VLBI network.

The African VLBI Network project aims both to fill a major gap in the global VLBI network and, by boosting engineering and science skills development across the continent, to pave the way for the arrival of the SKA.

In June 2012, the board of the African Renaissance Fund, which is located in South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, approved R120-million in funding for initial work on the project, which will involve recycling disused telecommunications dishes spread out over a number of countries.

South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology has added another R21-million in funding for the project, which is being driven by SKA South Africa and the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) near Johannesburg.

To keep the wheels turning, Hanekom said South Africa was already providing training for seven Ghanaians who will operate and maintain the soon-to-be radio telescope at Kutunse in Ghana.

In all, 90 students from other African countries had been trained in South Africa, and it was hoped that more people from the partner countries would be trained over the next few years.

SAnews.gov.za and SAinfo reporter