SKA funding, hosting talks continue

2012-10-10 09:15
President Jacob Zuma visits the Square Kilometre Array site in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape. (Picture: Sapa)

President Jacob Zuma visits the Square Kilometre Array site in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape. (Picture: Sapa)

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Carnarvon - Intense negotiations continue after South Africa won its bid to host the massive Square Kilometre Array telescope, the organisation has revealed.

“If you thought we were finished negotiating when we finished negotiating the site, well, that wasn’t the case. The two key agreements we’re busy with now are the funding agreement and the hosting agreement,” Dr Bernie Fanaroff, SKA South Africa project director told News24.

Negotiations around the hosting duties of countries have to be finalised and policies on customs for equipment as well as the issues for visas for staff still need to be hammered out.

“We’re having to discuss with them who will own the site; who will own the telescope; what is the time scale for them moving onto the site; how will we hand over control of the MeerKAT, for instance,” said Fanaroff.

The MeerKAT will consist of 64 radio telescopes that are closely aligned to the design specifications of the SKA, and will eventually be absorbed into Phase I of the project which will consist of 250 instruments.

Cash

The global financial meltdown has also had an impact on funding for the science project. Member countries of the SKA have committed to financing the project, but many have opted to contribute in kind rather than in cash.

The board however has insisted that a cash contribution should be made to guarantee that the SKA will be built on time. The project is estimated to cost around €1.5bn (R16.7bn).

“The funding agreement is a big issue: All of the countries now are having to commit themselves to what part of the total cost of the SKA they’ll pay. And of course, everyone at this stage is in financial stringency, so they’re all trying to put as much, but as little in as they can,” Fanaroff said.

The negotiations have become particularly sensitive as contributing countries demand contracts for their industries.

“What is also becoming clear is that all of the governments that are putting money in are also saying: ‘We want to get contracts for our industry.’ So there’ll be negotiations over procurement.

“We’re confident that a lot of the contracts will come to our own industry, but of course every government wants to get some contracts,” Fanaroff insisted.

He cautioned South Africans against expectations of high-speed delivery of the project as much of the technology required to make the SKA feasible does not yet exist.

Hardware

“I think the realisation has now come to people that this is a project that is much, much bigger than anything that has been built before.

“The world’s fastest computers now operate at a petaflop per second. To handle the SKA data, you’ll have to work at an exaflop per second, which is a thousand times faster,” Fanaroff said.

Additionally, once technological solutions are scaled up to SKA performance specification, management of the hardware in a way that does not affect the integrity of the data becomes critical.

Thousands of processors could demand huge power consumption and increase the failure rate.

“The other problem is programming: There’re new kinds of programming required because these things don’t just run sequentially; you’re running on all these processes together and the problems of programming haven’t been solved yet,” said Fanaroff.

Read more on:    kimberley  |  astronomy  |  ska  |  technology
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