SKA takes shape

2013-09-29 14:00

'Thanks to the SKA, radio astronomy is now five times bigger in SA’

The two drilling trucks lining the barren Northern Cape landscape look like they’re prospecting for water.

But they are actually part of the first steps in one of the world’s most exciting projects.

Black and yellow circles mark the spot where, in a year’s time, 64 new antennas will arise.

It has just been over a year since it was announced that South Africa will host the bulk of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, with its rival Australia also getting a slice of the pie.

The past two months have been busy for the SKA bosses.

Negotiations are in full swing about the logistics of sharing the project, and there’s lots of nitty-gritty to sort out on the infrastructure front.

Construction is in full swing.

Almost 200 construction workers are living on site, about 90km from the nearest town, Carnarvon.

Last month, the drilling trucks completed the first holes for the foundations of the 64 dish MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) radio telescope.

MeerKAT is the precursor to the full-on SKA and, with another 190 antennas set to be built on the same site, will make up the first phase of the project’s mid-frequency component.

Professor Justin Jonas, the associate director for science and engineering at SKA South Africa, says 75% of MeerKAT will be local content and will cost R1.2?billion.

He says the first two MeerKAT antennas will be built, and the international SKA committee will inspect the work.

“And once we are given the go-ahead, we will build two MeerKAT antennas every two weeks,” Jonas says, adding: “SKA is happening now.”

So happening, in fact, that the KAT-7 dishes – which currently decorate the Karoo and will be dismantled when the SKA’s first phase kicks in – have already delivered two scientific papers.

Jonas says his team has chosen 10 proposals from scientists across the world for airtime on the KAT-7 telescope that will deliver ground-breaking science.

“The SKA has already done wonders for South African science. Radio astronomy is now five times bigger in South Africa than previously, thanks to SKA,” says Jonas.

Building the SKA is a massive job.

Each foundation consists of 78m³ concrete and nine tons of steel, and the eventual dishes will be bigger than the existing KAT-7 dishes.

The first satellite is expected to launch in January.

There is even work happening underground: a bunker, 5m below ground level, will host the nerve centre from which the signals will be sent to radio astronomers across the world. This is nearing completion.

The second phase of the SKA will see more mid-frequency antennas constructed across the nation and in eight African SKA partner nations.

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