Recession ‘won’t jeopardise SKA’

27 February 2009

Delegates attending the Square Kilometre Array Forum in Cape Town this week believe the global economic crisis will not have a negative impact on the radio telescope project, saying it presents a unique opportunity to invest in critical science and infrastructure skills.

Speakers at the forum – the highlight of two weeks of specialist meetings focusing on the design, construction and science goals of the telescope – argued that countries that would recover best from the economic malaise were those which invested in the future.

“The world’s current and future challenges demand scientific thinkers and technological innovation,” said Professor John Womersley of the Science and Technology Facilities Council in the UK. “The quickest way to get out of the economic dilemma is to be able to evolve scientifically, and that requires a scientifically trained workforce.”

He pointed out that only 20-30% of astronomy was about understanding the universe, with the biggest challenge being training people.

European Union support

The European Commission’s Dr Robert-Jam Smits confirmed the European Union’s support for the project, because of its enormous potential to shift the frontiers of knowledge, and called on SKA project leaders to broaden the political support for the project in more countries around the world.

Already 19 countries and 55 scientific institutions are involved in the SKA project, and several more countries are expected to join the consortium soon.

“Telescopes look at very weak signals and so we need to push the limits of technology,” said SKA South Africa project director Dr Bernie Fanaroff, adding that the project presented a new way of looking at development.

“It often produces new technologies which later give rise to innovations and products which can be commercialised, which we can’t predict at this stage.”

Professor Malcolm Longair, an eminent cosmologist from Cambridge University in the UK supported the view, adding that the SKA project would open up a new era in astrophysics and cosmology for all astronomers and had huge potential for new discoveries.

Cutting edge technologies

The SKA will consist of thousands of dishes and other collecting devices, spread over a vast area, but working together as one instrument with a joint receiving surface of one square kilometre. Cutting edge technologies and computing power like never before will make it a true “time machine”, able to detect very faint celestial signals in order to look back to the early universe.

“Once the SKA comes online, its computing power will be equal to all the people on the planet doing a billion calculations per second all at the same time,” explained IBM’s Dr Bruce Elmegreen.

The two countries shortlisted to host the SKA are South Africa and Australia, and both are building radio telescopes (called “pathfinders”) to contribute to the SKA technology. Both pathfinder telescopes will be premier telescopes in their own right.

South Africa has begun construction on the Karoo Array Telescope (called MeerKAT) and the Australians are working on the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP). Because of the complementary nature of the two telescopes, the two countries announced a collaborative venture on science programmes at the forum.

Karoo site visit

Preceding the Forum, 60 astronomers and funding agency representatives visited South Africa’s site in the Karoo, in the Northern Cape Province, and everyone was tremendously impressed by the progress on the infrastructure and facilities in place.

If the SKA is built in South Africa, it will have outstations in at least eight other African countries, and these African partners were also at the forum to re-affirm their commitment to this project and to plan with the South African project team for future SKA preparations in their countries.

Before the final site for the SKA can be announced between 2011 and 2012, many more studies will be done to compare radio frequency interference, configuration, availability and cost of infrastructure, cost of construction and life-cycle costs for the South African and Australian sites.

“South Africa probably has a cost advantage and we also have excellent legislation to protect our site from radio frequency interference, now and in the future,” Fanaroff said. “What will definitely improve our chances is to be able to show that South Africans are behind this bid, as they were in the Football World Cup bid.”

Construction on the SKA should start in 2013 and early SKA science will be done from 2017 onwards.

SAinfo reporter

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