The next space race

2011-09-03 15:29

Is there life out there? The most powerful radio telescope in the world may finally answer this question, and South Africa could be its host. In the first of a two-part series, Erna van Wyk reports on the battle to host the ‘eye on the sky’

Sports rivals South Africa and Australia are going head-to-head in a battle of a different kind – to host the biggest “eye on the sky”.

In six months an international panel of astronomers will decide which country will host the world’s most powerful radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

It’s been dubbed the “World Cup of science”, and science and technology minister Naledi Pandor is leading the charge.
“We must take on the Australians like we take them on in rugby – to win,” she said.

The Karoo is being pitched against the Australian Outback – two vast, remote and arid regions where silence is, quite literally, golden (see sidebar).

Standing on the planes of the Karoo Astronomy Reserve, 100km from Carnarvon in Northern Cape, it is so quiet you can almost hear the earth turn.

If you are going to explore space in search of the beginning of life, it seems only proper to do so from the place where some of the earliest people roamed the planet.

But it will be more than a historical and emotional choice. The site committee will be judging each bid on technical evolution, scientific requirements, security and stability, as well as the ability of the country’s laws to protect the site from future human interference – such as in South Africa, where the bid is being threatened by Shell’s fracking plans in the Karoo.

Pandor has indicated that she would use the full force of the Astronomy Act, which protects the geographical area where the SKA will be built, to stop fracking.

Speculation of a win-win situation, where both countries will share the bid, is rife in the scientific community.

South Africa – with eight African countries as partners – and Australia – along with New Zealand – are both building precursor arrays, but they serve different functions.

According to American systems technician André Walker: “If there is a shared bid, either side will be able to participate on both sides.”

He is excited about the opportunities a successful bid will bring to Africa.

“No array (collection of antennae) of this magnitude has ever been accomplished and it will put Africa on the map.

Australia has been doing astronomy for 50 years, so this will be an amazing achievement for South Africa.

“There are rookie engineers who are creating something that has never been attempted,” he says.

At the Karoo Astronomy Reserve, commissioning scientist Dr Lindsay Magnus says South Africa is ready to host the SKA.

The engineering prototype, the MeerKAT telescope, is already being built and the first seven dishes, KAT-7, are complete and have produced the first pictures of space.

MeerKAT has attracted enormous international interest, with more than 500 astronomers already submitting proposals to use it once it is completed in 2016.

“It is all brand-new technology that will lead to cutting edge astronomy,” says Magnus.

Hosting the SKA will put South Africa, and Africa, on the map for the next 50 years – the duration of the project – and could provide answers to some of the questions humankind has been asking for millennia.

“We are all made out of stardust. Stars are the engine in the universe that fuses matter together. Knowing how that process works and how the universe is put together will give us a better understanding of how we work,” Magnus explains.

“Astronomy examines how stuff interacts with other stuff. It’s about our existence and where we fit in.”

With the help of the SKA, the fundamental questions the early inhabitants of the Karoo likely grappled with may finally be answered within the next 50 years.

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