17 March 2011
Hosting the world’s biggest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, has been ranked in significance with hosting the Fifa World Cup – and South Africa, with its African partners on board, is drumming up international support at various forums to make sure its bid succeeds.
Allied with eight other African countries, South Africa 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 consortium is due to announce the winning bid in 2012, with construction likely to start in 2014 and finish by about 2022.
Major benefits for the country and the continent in the areas of science and research have been projected in the event of a victory.
Briefing Parliament’s portfolio committee on science and technology in Cape Town on Wednesday, representatives from the Department and Science and Technology said that, on the ground, preparations for the SKA project were in full swing in the Northern Cape’s Karoo.
Lobbying for international support
At the same time, apart from lobbying for local support to win the bid, the department was working to garner support from countries such as Ghana, Mozambique, Botswana and the US, while engaging the science community across the globe, targeting strong astronomy countries such as China, Japan and India.
The department’s Dr Val Munsami said that they were aiming to reach key decision-makers within the global SKA project, included SKA funding agencies group members and steering board members.
Munsami said the department had also roped in the private sector to demonstrate the opportunities the SKA offered for infrastructure development, high-tech industries and potential market growth.
SKA on the agenda
They were working closely with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to ensure that the SKA would be on the agenda when Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe left for the US next week to meet with Joe Biden, his counterpart there.
They also wanted the matter to be on the table during the annual bilateral forum between the two countries next month, Munsami said, adding that an inter-ministerial committee had been formed and that the respective ministers would act as ambassadors for the SKA bid.
SKA project associate director, Anita Loots, said that some of the physical requirements for the selection of the site included an “extremely radio quiet environment” at least 3 000 square kilometres in size.
Munsami told the committee that Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor would use the law to ensure that the SKA site was protected from gas prospectors in the Karoo.