Time-travelling SKA to look back at the birth of stars

MeerKAT Array Telescope SKA
An artist’s impression of the MeerKAT array telescope, the major part of the Square Kilometre Array to be built in South Africa’s Karoo desert. The MeerKAT is expected to be science-ready by the end of 2017. Click for a larger view. (Image: SKA South Africa)


• SKA South Africa
3rd Floor, The Park, Park Road, Pinelands, Cape Town
+27 21 506 7300
enquiries@ska.ac.za


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Lorraine Kearney

The biggest science project in the world is happening right here – and all South Africans should be excited. The Square Kilometre Array is like Nasa for Africa. It’s the World Cup of science.

A group of journalists from the US, UK and China are currently touring the country, on the invitation of Brand South Africa, to find about more about local innovation. On Wednesday 26 March they visited the Cape Town offices of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa, where technical development manager Francois Kapp explained the massive telescope project.

The SKA is an international effort to build the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world. South Africa is one of its 10 member countries, charged with delivering two-thirds of the project, while Australia constructs a third. In partnership with various other African countries, SKA South Africa is currently designing and building the MeerKAT radio telescope in the desert of the Northern Cape. SKA International will remain in the design phase for the next three years, while SKA South Africa is already at work on construction.

Set up deep in the Karoo desert, KAT 7, with its seven telescopes, is the prototype for MeerKAT, which will be South Africa’s contribution to the SKA. KAT 7 is up and running already, while MeerKAT is still being installed – the first telescope is to be unveiled by the ministers of the partner countries on 27 March. Engineering work on MeerKAT is likely to be done by the end of 2016, with the project science-ready by the end of 2017. Two telescopes will be completed by June as the pilots.

Are we alone in the universe?

Kapp, an engineer, told the visiting journalists what the massive project aimed to achieve. “The first goal is an attempt to picture the evolution of the universe,” he said. “SKA expects to be examining as far back as 400-million years after the Big Bang, when the first stars appeared. It will attempt to find out why the universe is expanding, and why that expansion is accelerating. Other questions are about dark energy – what is it and what is its role in the accelerating expansion.”

Another goal was exploring gravity, Kapp explained, and “testing Einstein’s theories to the limit”. A third goal was to better understand cosmic magnetism. “SKA will be exploring the Dark Ages, or what is known as the Epoch of Re-ionisation in the history of the universe. But we will also be looking for life elsewhere, it whatever form that might take. Are we alone? I’d be surprised if we were.”

Big, silent and remote

MeerKAT is being installed about 80 kilometres from Carnarvon in the sparsely populated Northern Cape. The site choice is critical – there must be as little noise interference as possible, meaning it has to be far from human settlements. With mountains between the site and big cities, it’s about as remote as you can get. Much of the supercomputer room for data gathering – the Karoo Array Processor – is underground and sheathed in metal plates to keep noise to a minimum.

There are no mobile phones, laptops, televisions or radios there. Vehicles must run on diesel as the sparks of petrol engines interfere with the telescopes’ work. Everything is being assembled on site, with most components being built in South Africa – 75% are locally made, mainly the mechanical structures; the balance is imported, mostly in the electronic field. The engineering aspects are mainly South African.

Once complete, it will have 64 telescopes with a dense core across a one-kilometre diameter. More telescopes will then be set up in a more sparse array spread out up to eight kilometres away. The global SKA will have a dense core across five kilometres, from which outer telescopes will be placed up to 3 000 kilometres away, as far as Mauritius and Ghana. The first phase of SKA will have 254 telescopes; the second phase 2 540.

“We are already getting time booked on MeerKAT from scientists around the world,” Kapp said. “More than 500 scientists are involved, of whom 50 are from South Africa.” And South Africa is definitely holding its own: it went from mere participant to leader in the Collaboration for Astronomy Signal Processing and Electronics Research group at University of California Berkeley in a short space of time, and is custom designing the software and hardware for MeerKAT.

Intellectual property for South Africa

Carla Sharpe, the business development manager at SKA South Africa, spoke of the benefits South Africa would get from hosting the SKA. “We are developing this technology that is our intellectual property,” she said, “and we are working with private companies to commercialise it. The idea is that the benefits will expand so that the whole country will benefit.”

But it is bigger than that: SKA South Africa is a member of SKA Africa as well. “We are establishing the Africa VLBI [Very Long Baseline Interferometry] network,” Sharpe said. “There are many satellite segment dishes spread out across Africa that are no longer required – as telecommunications moves to fibre optics – or that have fallen into disrepair. We are paying to refurbish these and train scientists in these countries to run and maintain them, so that they can be used for SKA as well.”

Where countries do not have existing antennae suitable for conversion, converted dishes from other parts of Africa could be “transplanted”. In some cases, new dishes will be built, SKA South Africa says.

The African European Radio Astronomy Platform explains that the idea is to link all these telescopes together, and to radio telescopes in South Africa. “This, in turn, would be connected to radio telescopes and arrays in Europe and elsewhere in the world. The longer the baselines – the greater the array of linked telescopes – the greater is the astronomical detail that can be discerned. The project will also stimulate astronomy in the participating countries and help to develop skills in electronics and information and communications technology.”

Ghana, Kenya and Madagascar have already joined this project.

Business development from SKA technology

Other schemes are the R50-million Financial Assistance Programme “to help small companies participate in the SKA South Africa setup. There are already 11 small companies partnering in this”; and the Human Capital Development Programme, which has established research chairs at universities.

Other business development projects linked to SKA South Africa, all technical solutions, are BabyKAT, a small telescope used for training purposes, as well as Ratty, Roach 3, and PCB Manufacturing.

Big Data Africa and WC DEDAT Big Data Programme have “major implications in terms of data becoming easily available across Africa”. A sort of supercomputer clustering, it will use SKA South Africa technology. Ratty (Real Time Transient Analyser) will help as a fast, cheap way to make mandatory tests on electronic equipment. Roach (Reconfigurable Open Architecture Computing Hardware) is being designed and developed in South Africa. Roach is the building block of the SKA hardware, as it forms the heart of the signal processing. It will help bring know-how to the masses, such as in the Egg Box PC Programme, which is looking to build computers for about R500 for rural and underprivileged areas.

Two other business development projects, Sharpe said, were renewables, whereby SKA South Africa was sourcing funding to help develop renewable technology to help local communities, as well as in superconductors. In this field, it was working on ground-breaking technology with experts in Stellenbosch for cooling.

SKA South Africa is administered by the National Research Foundation and is funded by the National Treasury through the Department of Science and Technology. In the three-year budget tabled by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan on 26 February, the project was given R2.1-billion. This sum is for the telescope project itself, with off-set benefits of money spent in the local economy in designing the project, such as on staff salaries and rent, as well as cash for bursaries. Other offset projects will be funded by grants and sponsors. “It gives a multiplier effect to the SKA South Africa government investment.”

The fracking impact

The government has given the go-ahead for fracking explorations in the Karoo, but Kapp is optimistic it will not affect the SKA. “Fracking itself does not affect radio telescopes,” he said. “A micro earthquake would affect an optical telescope first. But the infrastructure that goes with fracking may affect the radio telescopes – the people, vehicles, mobile phones, technology needed. However, the Astronomy Geographical Advantage Act protects the site, and covers optical and radio astronomy.”