SKA will spur development - IAU

2012-02-20 10:29
Radio telescope dishes stand on the site of the MeerKAT near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Radio telescope dishes stand on the site of the MeerKAT near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - The construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will play an important role in development, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has said.

"Our interest is to see the biggest radio telescope ever being built and we would love to see it being built and wherever it is built, we would love to see the impact this telescope has on development," Kevin Govender, director for the Office of Astronomy for Development at the IAU told News24.

He said that the project was vital, even in challenging economic times.

"I remain quite optimistic about the project going ahead even in spite of all the financial challenges happening in the world today. Investment into a project like this actually stimulates general growth and development.

"Investing in large-scale science projects has an impact of building human capacity; it has the impact of stimulating industries to be part of this big project.

"I think of all things to invest in, investing in science and technology is a very good idea during hard economic times," Govender said.

Targeted outcome

The SKA aims to build over 3 000 linked radio telescopes and both Australia and South Africa have submitted bids for the project, expected to cost about €1.5bn and is scheduled for completion by 2024.

Govender insisted that research that didn't have a targeted outcome was vital for development.

"My office was set up because of the fundamental belief that investing the in the exploration of the universe investing in something of this nature, so called blue sky research, is actually a good thing for development.

"It's part of human nature and it always has been, that we explore our environment; that we continue to challenge our minds and be curious about the world around us. It is that curiosity that has led us to where we are today.

"If there wasn't such a thing as blue sky research, if there wasn't that curiosity, we would not have electricity that we have, the cellphone technology; the satellite technology."

If SA doesn't win the SKA, the government has committed itself to building the MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) which will consist of 64 linked radio telescopes in the Karoo.

"We will build MeerKAT, but we have an exciting initiative that we're currently trying to promote on the continent. That of building a VLBI [Very Long Baseline Interferometer] of radio satellites connected across the African continent and linking in to the VLBI network in Europe as well as the Americas," said Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor.

Human challenges

Initially, MeerKAT was intended as a test-bed for the SKA, but it has become a relevant instrument in its own right and is scheduled for completion by 2016.

Govender rejected concerns that engineers will be poached to work in whichever country wins the SKA bid.

"It's a global environment we're working in at the moment and something like SKA is a projects that's so big, we need to generate engineers and scientists all over the world and the investment that South Africa has made in terms of building MeerKAT, the investments that Australia has made in the Askap [Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder] - this is all developing each region's skills capacity.

"You might have engineers moving around, but in the global context we have brought up more skills that contribute to global development."

The IAU says that development of astronomy should not be seen in opposition to social spending, but rather that it creates an economic boost to improve the lives of ordinary people.

"It shouldn't be invest in the telescope at the sacrifice of working on poverty alleviation programmes. If you look at the global slices given to science and technology versus how much is invested in development and direct poverty alleviation programmes, you'll find that science and technology has a very thin slice of that global budget.

"As we grow human knowledge, we are better able to address human challenges," Govender said.

- Follow Duncan on Twitter

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