A trek to the start of time

The Square Kilometre Array telescope will
be made up of some 3 000 antennas
grouped over roughly one square
kilometre.
(Image: Square Kilometre Array)

This article originally appeared on page
two of South Africa Now, a six-page
supplement to the Washington Post
produced on behalf of Brand South Africa.
(Click to enlarge.)

MEDIA CONTACTS
• Lillian Mofokeng, Communications Manager
Square Kilometre Array South African Project
+27 (0) 11 442 2434
enquiries@ska.ac.za

It will probe the edges of our universe. It will search for gravitational waves, predicted but never detected. It will be a virtual time machine, enabling scientists to explore the origins of galaxies, stars and planets. And South Africans are at the heart of its development.

Allied with eight other African countries, South Africa is competing against Australia and New Zealand to host the €1.5-billion (R14.3-billion) Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an instrument 50 to 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.

The telescope will be made up of some 3 000 antennas grouped over roughly one square kilometre. South Africa plans to locate the core of these in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape – an arid, remote area blessed with exceptionally clear skies and minimal radio interference – with outlying stations in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

The country is no newcomer to major league astronomy. The Northern Cape is already home to one of the world’s largest telescopes, the Southern African Large Telescope or SALT.

South Africa also works closely with neighbour Nambia on the HESS gamma ray telescope, and is currently building an 80-dish precursor instrument for SKA, the Karoo Array Telescope (also known as the MeerKAT), due to be commissioned in 2013 as the most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere.

In the process, South African engineers are already working on some of SKA’s technological building blocks – such as a prototype dish antenna that combines new materials with innovative design processes to meet the SKA’s exacting precision, durability and cost criteria.

If awarded to South Africa, SKA would establish the southern African region as a major international astronomy hub.

And the SKA consortium, comprising 55 institutions in 19 countries, is optimistic that the US will be part of the project.

In its latest report to the US National Research Council, released in August, the US Committee for a Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics endorsed the SKA, expressing “unqualified enthusiasm for the science that this facility could deliver and recognition that it represents the long-term future of radio astronomy.”

This does not automatically translate into the 40% funding the SKA partners were hoping the US would provide. The committee noted that the SKA schedule and the US funding timetable are out of synch.

At the same time, it urged funding for two other projects – HERA (Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array) and NANOGrav (North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves) – that could greatly assist SKA.

Responding to the report, SKA project director Richard Schilizzi said: “We are cautiously optimistic that the US will take part in the SKA.”

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