1 April 2010
Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor believes South Africa has a strong chance of winning its bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a multi-billion rand international radio telescope that will be between 50 and 100 times more sensitive than any such instrument ever built.
South Africa and Australia are competing to host the SKA, construction of which is expected to cost about €1.5-billion. The international science funding agencies and governments involved in the international SKA consortium are expected to announce the winning bidder in 2012.
Pandor was at the SKA site outside Carnavon in the Northern Cape this week to witness the completion of the seven-dish Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7), which serves as a percursor to the MeerKAT, an operational demonstrator telescope that forms a core component of South Africa’s SKA bid.
‘An African science hub’
The KAT-7 will serve both as an engineering test-bed and as an operational radio telescope in its own right. The MeerKAT will be one of the largest scientific research facilities in the world, and will consolidate Africa as a major global hub for astronomy in the world.
“South Africa is going to be chosen to host the SKA, and we will be ready to host it,” Pandor said, adding that the telescope would be one of the greatest scientific projects of the 21st century.
“The Southern African Development Community has declared their support for the African Square Kilometre Array bid,” she said. “Most importantly, the excitement and challenges of astronomy and space science are already attracting some of our best students into studying science and engineering.”
Pandor also said she was confident that hosting SKA would assist in retaining scientists in the country, as it would make Africa the world centre of physics, astronomy and high-tech engineering, dramatically increasing Africa’s capacity to innovate in harmony with industries and universities.
In a boost for the local bid, South Africa’s Parliament passed the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act of 2007, which declares the Northern Cape Province as an astronomy advantage area, thus protecting it from unwanted radio interference.
SKA funding partners
Pandor said 19 countries and 55 scientific institutions have joined the project and several other countries are more likely to join. It is currently expected that 80% of the cost for hosting the SKA will be carried by nine countries.
The US will provide 40% of the total cost, while eight European countries – France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the UK – will together provide another 40%.
The SKA headquarters will be at Jodrell Bank outside Manchester in the UK, where there is an observatory and a radio telescope that has been listening to deep space for more than 50 years.