Hard work ahead to build SKA - director

2012-10-09 07:24
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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Carnarvon - South Africa’s successful bid for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) doesn’t mean that the work is done, the project director has said.

“This is a project that gets larger and larger the more you look at it,” Dr Bernie Fanaroff, SKA South Africa project director, told News24.

SA and Australia share the responsibility for hosting the SKA, which will consist of about 3 000 linked radio telescopes that will give astronomers an unprecedented view of the early universe.

The South African team won a hard-fought bid to host the majority share of the massive undertaking, but Fanaroff warned that the hard work was only beginning.


“Although we thought we were working very hard for the site bid, we’ve realised that that was the easy part, and the implementation was the difficult part.

“What we’ve done is won the opportunity to build the world’s largest scientific instrument in Africa; it’s not coming to us on a plate, we’re going to have to work very hard to implement it,” he added.

Fanaroff and a team from SA recently arrived from Australia, where they met with the SKA board. He revealed that China, which has emerged as a key player in the SKA, has thrown its weight behind the project.

“We got some good news at the board [meeting] – the Chinese state council, which is the highest decision making body in China, has decided that it’s going to throw its full weight into the SKA.”

Germany will also be joining the SKA board by the end of October, but so far, the US is not involved.

“The board is really now starting to take control of the project. The new director general Phil Diamond has been appointed; he’ll start work on the 15 October in Manchester and the first trip he makes will be to South Africa,” said Fanaroff.

Diamond is the chief of Australia’s CSIRO research organisation and was also responsible for that country’s Askap (Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder) instrument.

Much of the technology to deliver the SKA is not yet available, and engineers are in discussions with industry-leading companies to make the best guess of what technology will be mature in 2016, when construction of Phase I of the SKA is scheduled to begin.

“The kind of things that we’re now busy with are looking at the nitty-gritty of what is required to build a huge infrastructure,” Fanaroff said.


The SKA board team from the office in Manchester recently visited the site and were pleased with the work done by the local team.

“They [the team] were really impressed with the amount of work we’ve done and I don’t think they’d realised just how complex it all is,” said Fanaroff.

The infrastructure for the MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope), the precursor to the SKA, is under way on the site in the Northern Cape.

The MeerKAT will consist of 64 radio telescopes and will be one of the most sensitive instruments, able to detect a cellphone on the Moon, according to the engineers.

Contracts for MeerKAT infrastructure and telescopes have been issued, and companies that were involved in the construction of the KAT 7 engineering test bed have won some contracts.

Aurecon has been contracted to develop infrastructure solutions for MeerKAT, and BVi Consulting Engineering worked closely with Mesa Solutions to provide a radio quiet power line.

Optic 1 installed the fibre link between Carnarvon and the site and Seacom, FibreCo Telecommunications and Nokia Siemens are all assisting with the data connections and equipment for the project.

Still, despite the progress made so far, Fanaroff said much needed to be done.

“When you go out to the site, you’ll see lots of big holes all over the place, roads being driven through the veld; there’s an airstrip that’s almost completed, but they haven’t finished the executive lounge yet, but that will come later,” he said, to laughter from reporters.

- Follow Duncan on Twitter

Read more on:    kimberley  |  astronomy  |  ska  |  technology

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