South Africa, Australia to share SKA?

5 April 2012

A decision on the site of the Square Kilometre Array has been delayed to allow a scientific working group to explore ways of maximising investments already made by rival bidders South Africa and Australia-New Zealand – raising the possibility that the hosting of the world’s biggest radio telescope could be shared.

South Africa, allied with eight other African countries, is competing against Australia (allied with New Zealand) to host the €1.5-billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an instrument 50-100 times more sensitive and 10 000 times faster than any radio imaging telescope yet built.

The international SKA organisation members met in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on Tuesday to discuss a report and recommendation by an advisory committee on which site was thought to be technically superior, along with commentary made by the SKA board of directors at a meeting in Manchester, England last month.

SA site tipped as technically superior

Unconfirmed media reports have tipped South Africa as the site technically favoured, but the members made no comment on this.

Instead, the SKA board, after a follow-up meeting on Thursday, said in a statement that the members “wished to move ahead with the site selection process, and recognised that it is desirable to maintain an inclusive approach to SKA.

“They noted that it is important to maximise the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions. They therefore agreed to set up a small scientific working group to explore possible implementation options that would achieve this.

“This working group will report back to the members at a meeting in mid-May; its report will provide additional information to facilitate the site decision for SKA.”

South Africa’s science and technology minister, Naledi Pandor, expressed disappointment at the delay, saying in a statement: “I hope that the SKA organisation will make a decision in the first half of 2012 and that the decision will reflect the best scientific outcome.

“We believe we have an excellent site at which exciting science will be done,” Pandor said. “We in Africa are ready to host the SKA.”

Massive impact on skills development in science

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.

Construction is likely to start in 2016 and take place in phases over several years, with completion by about 2022.

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.

MeerKAT: world-class in its own right

South Africa is currently building a 64-dish precursor instrument for the SKA, the Karoo Array Telescope (also known as the MeerKAT) which, regardless of whether South Africa wins the SKA bid, will be a powerful scientific instrument in its own right – as will Australia’s SKA precursor, the 36-dish Pathfinder, which is currently under construction.

The MeerKAT is being built adjacent to the site proposed for 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.

An engineering test bed of seven dishes, called the KAT-7, is already complete.

In the process of building the MeerKAT, South African engineers are already working on some of the SKA’s technological building blocks – such as a prototype dish antenna that combines new materials with innovative design processes to meet the SKA’s exacting precision, durability and cost criteria.

The MeerKAT will be the most sensitive centimetre-wavelength radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, and astronomers from around the world are already queuing up to use it.

KAT-7: proof of SA’s abilities

The MeerKAT scientists are fully embedded in the international SKA project, participating in technical committees and working groups set up by the SKA project development office.

In South Africa, the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory and the South African Astronomical Observatory are participating in the MeerKAT project, while researchers and students at many universities in South Africa and the rest of Africa are also actively participating.

Last month, the SKA South Africa project office announced that the KAT-7, a seven-dish precursor to the MeerKAT, had produced the first atomic hydrogen spectral line images of a nearby galaxy.

SKA South Africa director Dr Bernie Fanaroff said the KAT-7’s latest results “have given us confidence that we know how to build a cutting-edge radio telescope in Africa to answer some of the fundamental questions in radio astronomy”.

According the Fanaroff, a large proportion of the science planned for the SKA – and the MeerKAT – involves mapping the universe using neutral hydrogen.

“Our team in the SKA South Africa project and universities has again shown that they can deliver cutting-edge technology and do excellent science on a very tight schedule,” Fanaroff said.

SAinfo reporter