Astronomers plan next SKA move

2012-07-09 10:35
A model of the revised MeerKAT dish which is closely aligned to the SKA requirements is seen at the project office in Cape Town. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

A model of the revised MeerKAT dish which is closely aligned to the SKA requirements is seen at the project office in Cape Town. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Astronomers have gathered to map the way forward in the first collective meeting after South Africa was granted the majority share of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

"It was a historic gathering of astronomers in this astronomy town hall format meeting. It was an opportunity for astronomers to talk among themselves," Professor Nithaya Chetty Group Executive of Astronomy at the National Research Foundation (NRF) told News24.

The meeting at the University of Pretoria which began on Sunday will focus astronomers on plans to use the massive science project that aims to link thousands of radio telescopes centred in the Karoo to drive science development in SA.

"With this being the first substantial gathering of astronomers, you can imagine that the SKA loomed very large in discussions yesterday," Chetty said.

The gathering was attended by department of science and technology (DST) as well as NRF officials and Chetty said that SA was focused on astronomy.

Skilled professionals

"Astronomy is an extremely strategic scientific endeavour in South Africa; we have a geographical advantage in doing this type of science in South Africa. It means we have a real opportunity of leading the world and we are already doing that in many respects."

The SKA project will demand a high number of skilled professionals in engineering, astronomy, mathematics and computer science as the country races to deliver the €1.5bn project, due for completion by 2024.

Chetty said that such a project will spur development of technical skills and this could have a further benefit to the economy.

"But astronomy is also a means for development in many different facets related to astronomy - whether it's human capacity development - we have scientific projects that students can work on that are current and exciting and potential level prize winning types of research programmes," he said.

Formerly disadvantage students would specifically be targeted as part of transforming astronomy in SA.

"Within in this context we are driving our transformation agenda of trying to excite a new generation of particularly black South African and African students into science and astronomy is just an exciting vehicle for achieving this," Chetty said.

One of the innovations related to the SKA project has been the development of the Raoch (Reconfigurable Open Architecture Computing Hardware) board.

Science development

In comparison to an ordinary computer motherboard which has around 700 - 800 components, the Roach board has 1 414 components, some which are quite expensive because of the specialised functions they are required to perform.

It is critical to the precursor to the SKA - the MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) - because it allows high speed processing of digital data and could be used in fields beyond astronomy.

"It's got very high speed networks and could be used in telecommunications," Roach lead designer David George said in late 2011.

The DST has been pushing the science development among young people and building awareness of the SKA project.

On Monday, Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor will hand over prizes to the schools that won the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)-MeerKat Schools Competition.

Chetty said that with a project of the scale of the SKA, one could leverage innovation development in multiple areas.

"Around astronomy of course there all sorts of engineering and technical innovations, including software development and this becomes a really fantastic vehicle for driving those developments as well."

- Follow Duncan on Twitter

Here's a YouTube video where Dr Tim O'Brien explains the science of radio astronomy and its window on the invisible Universe:

Read more on:    nrf  |  kimberley  |  astronomy  |  good news  |  ska

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