Nine countries commit to SKA

10 April 2011

South Africa and eight other countries – Australia, China, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the UK – have signed a letter of intent on getting the Square Kilometre Array built, and agreed to work together to secure funding for the next phase of the project.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a €1.5-billion (about R14.4-billion) global science project to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope – an instrument capable of answering some of the most fundamental questions about the universe.

Allied with eight other African countries, South Africa is competing against Australia (allied with New Zealand) to host the SKA. The international SKA consortium is due to announce the winning bid in 2012, with construction likely to start in 2016 and finish by about 2022.

“The commitment to funding the SKA is significant, as it demonstrates the countries’ commitment to make the SKA a success,” Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said on Thursday.

National governmental and research organisations from the nine countries signed the letter of intent in Italy on 2 April, with further signatories expected to come forward in the next six months.

They also established a founding board for the SKA project, and selected the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester in the UK as host of the SKA project office, a new management structure that will guide the project into the next phase of its development.

The move to Jodrell Bank Observatory from the office currently based at the University of Manchester “comes at a crucial time as the project grows from a concept to an international mega-science project,” SKA project director Professor Richard Schilizzi said in a statement.

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.

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.

South Africa is building the Karoo Array Telescope, or MeerKAT, as part of its bid to host the SKA. Regardless of whether SA wins the bid to host the SKA, the MeerKAT will be a powerful scientific instrument in its own right, comprising 80 dishes each 13.5 metres in diameter.

The MeerKAT telescope will be built in a radio astronomy reserve near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, where it is due to be commissioned in 2014. An engineering test bed of seven dishes, called the KAT-7, is already complete.

SAinfo reporter and BuaNews