SA, Australia to share SKA telescope

25 May 2012

After weeks of speculation, members of the Square Kilometre Array Organisation have announced that South Africa and Australia will jointly host the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

“We have decided on a dual site approach,” said SKA board chairperson John Wommersley at a press conference held at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, following a meeting of the SKA organisation’s members in the Dutch capital.

This follows a meeting of the members at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, after weeks of waiting and speculation regarding the final outcome of the hosting bid, which came down to two rivals, South Africa and Australia.

South Africa will be the majority partner in the project, however, and will host 2/3rd of the antennae technologies of the SKA, while the remaining third will be built in Australia and New Zealand.

The announcement was initially expected early in April but was delayed. Various reasons were given for the delay, such as a number of objections raised by the Australian organisation that had to be resolved.

Members of the SKA Organisation then agreed that it was necessary to set up a small scientific working group to explore various implementation options that would ensure that there was an inclusive approach to SKA, as well as maximise the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions.

Brand South Africa CEO Miller Matola says that South Africa is thrilled with the opportunity to share the hosting of the SKA as the partnership with Australia will open up new avenues for skills development as well as ideas and cultural exchange.

“The SKA will bring advancements of astro-sciences to both countries and facilitate knowledge sharing between young and older astronomy and cosmology experts. The opportunity to share the SKA with Australia will also highlight the benefits of partnerships on a global scale, and will improve industry cohesion and co-development in astronomy and other related fields.”

Driving scientific development in Southern Africa

The SKA in South Africa will be located mainly in the Northern Cape province, in an area protected by legislation from development that could interfere with the reception of radio waves from space.

It will comprise about 3 000 dish-shaped antennae spread over many thousands of square kilometres. The core of the telescope will lie in the Northern Cape’s Karoo region, with outlying stations spread throughout South Africa, and in Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya, Madagascar and Mauritius.

The instrument, which will be the world’s largest radio telescope, is expected to be complete in 2024.

In South Africa scientists and engineers have been hard at work for a number of years in preparation for the SKA.

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.

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

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.

First published by MediaClubSouthAfrica.com – get free high-resolution photos and professional feature articles from Brand South Africa’s media service.