SA determined to build MeerKAT
Carnarvon - The government will soldier on with a multi-billion rand Karoo telescope, that will allow astronomers to see billions of years back in time, regardless of what happens with a bid to build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
Deputy Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said the R1.1bn MeerKAT telescope offers a "multiplicity" of science and technology benefits for South Africa.
"If we want to put our economy onto a growth trajectory then we have to start moving from being a resource economy to a knowledge economy," said Hanekom.
"We are doing ground breaking science work with the MeerKAT project."
The MeerKAT will use 64 satellite dishes that pick up radio waves from deep space. The waves will form pictures that will help astronomers understand more about the universe and its origins.
It will be the largest, most sensitive telescope in the southern hemisphere.
"Opportunities for Africa to be catapulted into the world of science don't come around very often. So we are proceeding with the MeerKat and the investment will follow."
It is hoped that the MeerKAT will be expanded to form the more than 3 000 satellite SKA radio telescope.
SA has to beat Australia in a bid to build the €2bn SKA, but financial problems in Europe and the US have raised questions about whether the project has a future.
The US has indicated that it will not build any telescopes for the next ten years, while the EU is in the middle of a debt crisis and is likely to cut back on projects like the SKA.
Justin Jonas, the director for science and engineering at the SKA South Africa Project, refuses to be downcast.
"It's not build or die," he said at the arid proposed site of the SKA outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.
"We are going to build MeerKAT and lots of people are going to use it. The MeerKAT can still be enlarged to be the SKA."
Jonas said South Korea, India and even the EU could still help finance the project.
The SKA board, which is yet to appoint a leadership, will meet for the first time on January 18 to evaluate the South African and Australian bids.
Jonas said it was "anyone's guess" as to when the bid winner would be announced.