R1.8bn UK boost for Square Kilometre Array

12 March 2014

South African Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom has welcomed the €120-million (R1.8-billion) investment in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project that was announced by the British government on Tuesday.

“The significance of this announcement … is in the impetus that this provides to implementation of phase 1 of the SKA. This is a most welcome commitment and reaffirms the global partnership of the SKA countries in this mega project,” Hanekom said in a statement.

The SKA project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, which is to be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia, with South Africa and its eight partners on the continent hosting two-thirds of the technology and Australia the remaining third.

South Africa is currently building the 64-dish MeerKAT, which is due to come online in 2016 both as the country’s precursor to the SKA and as one of the most powerful telescopes in the world in its own right.

Britain, a major player in the SKA project, hosts the head office of the international SKA Organisation at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester.

UK Science Minister David Willetts, who made Tuesday’s announcement, paid a special visit the South African SKA site in the Northern Cape in September, accompanied by SKA project director Bernie Fanaroff.

According to the Department of Science and Technology, South Africa and the UK are “already collaborating extensively in the field of radio astronomy, with 25 research organisations and more than 80 individual scientists from the UK directly involved in the large survey teams that will use the MeerKAT telescope for research during its first five years of operation.”

This includes scientists from Oxford University and from Manchester University. There is also extensive SKA-related co-operation on big data and high-performance computing with Cambridge University, which Hanekom visited in January, the department said.

The South African government has made a contribution of close to R4-billion to the MeerKAT and its associated human capital development programmes.

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 Australia.

The SKA will be at least 50 times more powerful and 10 000 times faster than any other radio telescope. It is expected to address fundamental unanswered questions about our universe, including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth.

SAnews.gov.za and SAinfo reporter