Big science coming to Africa

[Image] Science and technology minister Naledi
Pandor is adamant that South Africa is
capable of hosting the SKA, and that
the country’s bid is the better one.

[Image] The seven-dish KAT-7 array is already
online and bringing in valuable imagery.
(Images: Janine Erasmus)

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Marina Joubert
SKA South Africa communications
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Janine Erasmus

With the site decision-making process for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) fast drawing to a conclusion, South Africa remains confident that it is fully capable of hosting one of the biggest science projects ever undertaken.

At a press briefing in Johannesburg, science and technology minister Naledi Pandor, science and technology director-general Phil Mjwara, and SKA South Africa project director Bernie Fanaroff assured South Africans that the country has the human and technological capacity to successfully host and maintain the multi-billion-rand instrument.

Over the past few years there have been many advancements in related science and electronics, and also in human capital, with South Africa now recognised as a leader in signal processing hardware and the development of next-generation technology.

An extensive bursary programme has seen hundreds of university students becoming interested in space science and engineering as a career, and, said Pandor, even more encouraging is that many of these are black students and women.

“These kinds of large-scale projects are powerful drivers of socio-economic development,” she said.

To date, R55-million (US$7-million) has been spent on developing the skills needed for SKA, with 398 postdoctoral fellowships, PhD, MSc and undergraduate bursaries given to deserving candidates.

Between 2012 and 2017, said Pandor, a further R200-million ($26-million) will be spent on education.

Not only is the SKA project boosting South African capacity in astronomy, science and engineering, but as a whole it’s bringing the best researchers from around the world to Africa and will do so on an even bigger scale in years to come.

The final decision is expected early in April, after a SKA member meeting on 3 April followed by a meeting of the SKA board on the following day. South Africa and Australia are the two competitors in the SKA race.

While the continent holds its breath in anticipation, many people are cautious about expecting an announcement on that day, after such a long wait already.

However, Pandor and her team will not accept any unnecessary delays.

“We will let them know that we want a decision,” she stated. “We want to know what we should plan for.”

Competitive edge

One of South Africa’s perceived advantages is that its government is fully supportive of the SKA bid, to the extent that legislation has been enacted that protects a vast region of the Northern Cape province from disruptive development.

This is where the core of the SKA, should it come to Africa, will be situated, as well as the 64-dish SKA precursor MeerKAT. The outlying antennae will be hosted across South Africa’s eight SKA partner countries in the Southern African region, including Madagascar and Mauritius.

Already an array of seven radio telescopes, the KAT-7, is online at the Northern Cape site and bringing in valuable imagery from far-flung corners of the universe. The KAT-7 is the MeerKAT precursor.

When complete, MeerKAT will be the biggest radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. Although it’s only due to become operational in 2012, the first five years of MeerKAT research time are fully booked, with astronomers queuing up to work on this important instrument

The team’s goal is to complete 15 MeerKAT antennae by 2015.

Financial relief

In his 2012 budget speech, finance minister Pravin Gordhan announced that the Department of Science and Technology’s budget would increase from R4.4-billion (US$573-million) in 2011/2012 to R6-billion ($782-million) in 2014/2015 – a leap of 27%.

The SKA and MeerKAT would receive funding on top of this amount.

Gordhan also said that the SKA project would qualify for VAT relief, a move that is expected to give South Africa an added advantage in the hosting race.

Pandor explained that the deductions would apply to the purchase of equipment, to help offset the huge cost and make investment more attractive.

Overseas endorsement

Pandor said that the recent adoption by the European parliament of declaration number 45, titled Science capacity building Africa: strengthening European-African radio astronomy partnerships, is a clear indication that Africa’s achievements in this field are being recognised.

“The majority of parliamentary members signed the declaration,” she said, “which shows that they share our view of Africa’s geographic advantages as a potential SKA host, and also that the continent is an attractive partner for science and innovation.”

The AU has also thrown its weight behind the African bid, and at its 2012 summit in Addis Ababa in January, called for radio astronomy to become a priority of its science, information society and space partnership with the EU.

Despite recent reports in overseas newspapers that have suggested that the selection process favours South Africa, and frenzied speculation from people connected with and supporting the rival Australian bid, the local SKA team have withheld any comment on these unsubstantiated reports, as the selection process is meant to be confidential.

The two countries won’t have too much longer to wait, with the official announcement expected on 4 April.

And while associated projects such as the KAT-7 and MeerKAT telescopes are important scientific instruments in their own right, South Africa still has its eyes on the big prize.

“Our main, iconic target is the SKA,” said Pandor.