‘Full Moon Fever’ for Africa’s SKA bid

15 November 2011

South Africa has launched a “Full Moon Fever” campaign as part of a series of events leading up to the announcement of the host of the €1.5-billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – arguably the country’s most important contest since its successful bid to host the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

On the Fridays and Saturdays closest to the full moon of each month until the announcement is made in the first half of 2012, the Department of Science and Technology will host Full Moon Fever events to rally support from communities in South Africa and on the continent for the African SKA bid.

Mission MeerKAT

The department, in partnership with the South African State Theatre, will also be creating a mobile exhibition and a live stage play called “Mission MeerKAT”, about the world-class SKA precursor instrument which the country is currently building.

Regardless of whether South Africa wins the SKA bid, the MeerKAT will be a powerful scientific instrument in its own right, comprising 80 dishes each 13.5-metres in diameter. It is being built adjacent to the site proposed for the core of the SKA, in a radio astronomy reserve near the small town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, where it is due to be commissioned in 2014/15.

A specially equipped truck will take performances of “Mission MeerKAT” across the country, with events also planned for outlying areas and smaller communities.

South Africa vs Australia – on the science field!

For many South Africans, the country’s bid to host the SKA will be another case of taking on the arch-rival: South Africans have a long history of fierce competition with Australia on the sporting field. This time the field is cutting-edge science – and the stakes are considerably higher.

South Africa, allied with eight other African countries, is competing against Australia (allied with New Zealand) to host the SKA, the world’s most powerful radio telescope, an instrument 50-100 times more sensitive and 10 000 times faster than any radio imaging telescope yet built.

The international science funding agencies and governments involved in the international SKA consortium are due to announce the winning bidder in 2012, with construction likely to start in 2016 and take place in phases over several years, with completion by about 2022.

More than 70 institutes in 20 countries, together with industry partners, are participating in the scientific and technical design of the SKA telescope, which will be located either in Australia and New Zealand, or in southern Africa extending to the Indian Ocean Islands – with the core of the array located in the Northern Cape.

No newcomer to major league astronomy

Speaking at the Full Moon Fever campaign launch at the State Theatre in Pretoria on Monday, Science and Technology deputy director-general Val Munsami said: “Tonight is a night with a difference for the discipline of science and technology.

“Scientists and researchers can, for a moment, forego their busy research schedules and get out of their laboratories to join us in celebrating astronomy and its impact on science in South Africa.”

South Africa is no newcomer to major league astronomy. The Northern Cape is already home to one of the world’s largest telescopes, the Southern African Large Telescope or SALT.

South Africa also works closely with neighbour Nambia on the HESS gamma ray telescope, and recently finished building an engineering test bed of seven dishes, called the KAT-7, in preparation for full construction of the MeerKAT, due to start in 2012.

The KAT-7’s first astronomical image – of the galaxy Centaurus A, whose intense radio emission is powered by a massive black hole in the centre of the galaxy – has already been made.

Huge significance for Africa

SKA South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff has said that if Africa is to fulfil its potential as the next great economic growth destination, it needs large scientific projects such as the Square Kilometre Array.

The design, construction and operation of the telescope will have a potentially massive impact on skills development in science, engineering and associated industries, not only in the host countries but in all project partner countries.

The SKA project will drive technology development in antennas, fibre networks, signal processing, and software and computing, with spin-off innovations in these areas set to benefit other systems that process large volumes of data.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said in September, when South Africa submitted its final bid documents for hosting the SKA, that Africa would “provide a home for the SKA to do revolutionary science”, describing SA’s proposal as “strong, cost-effective and robust”.

‘Strong, cost-effective, robust bid’

South Africa’s proposed site for the core of the SKA – the remote, radio-“quiet” Karoo region of the country’s Northern Cape province – was “orders of magnitude better than any existing observatory, and is protected by the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act,” Pandor said.

“The excellence of our site has been recognised by the construction and operation of the world-leading PAPER and CBASS telescopes on our site, in which we are collaborating with leading US institutions.

“Our team, with business and industry, has developed excellent solutions for how to provide power, data transport and infrastructure for the telescope very cost-effectively.”

SAinfo reporter