UK minister to visit SKA South Africa

10 September 2013

British Universities and Science Minister David Willetts will be touching down on Wednesday on a new all-weather landing strip in the Karoo, where South Africa is building the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope, a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The SKA, the first large-scale global research infrastructure project ever to be co-hosted in Africa, will be the world’s largest radio telescope.

The MeerKAT, with a further 190 antennas to be built on the same site, will make up the first phase of the mid-frequency component of the SKA. The second phase will see further mid-frequency antennas constructed across South Africa and in eight African SKA partner countries.

Complementary components of the SKA will be located in co-host country Australia.

Willetts, South African Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom, other UK and SA government officials and SKA South Africa project staff will be on the first aircraft to touch down on the new landing strip on Wednesday.

The UK, a major player in the global SKA project, is host to the head office of the SKA Organisation, located at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester.

“It is a pleasure to see our South African SKA colleagues hosting Minister Willetts at one of the telescope sites, a few months after the minister inaugurated the SKA headquarters in the UK”, Professor Philip Diamond, director-general of the SKA Organisation, said in a statement on Tuesday.

South Africa and the UK are already collaborating extensively in the field of radio astronomy, with 25 research organisations and 88 scientists from the UK – including 16 from Oxford University and 11 from Manchester University – directly involved in the large survey teams that will use the MeerKAT telescope for research during its first five years of operation.

“The SKA is an extremely exciting project,” Willetts said on Tuesday. “From how the first stars and galaxies formed to the nature of gravity, their work will vastly increase our understanding of the universe.

“I look forward to the UK and South African scientific communities working closely together as they harness Big Data, one of the eight great technologies of the future, to explore some of the most fundamental problems in astronomy.”

Willetts said the SKA was one of the UK’s top priority astronomy projects, adding that the British government was planning to invest £19-million (R305-million) in the design phase of the project.

On Wednesday Willetts, along with the rest of the British and South African delegation, will get a close-up view of the progress made on the MeerKAT infrastructure, including the KAT-7 pathfinder telescope, the new airstrip and roads, and specialised buildings and sheds where the MeerKAT antennas will be manufactured and integrated.

Professor Justin Jonas, associate director for science and engineering at SKA South Africa, said the new landing strip would make life easier and safer for the engineers and scientists now frequently visiting the SKA site in the Karoo.

“The site is located about 700km from Cape Town, where our science, engineering and commissioning teams are based, and about 1 000km from Johannesburg, where our infrastructure engineering team is based,” Jonas said.

SAinfo reporter and SKA South Africa