A building site to change the world

2012-07-07 18:02

When it comes to solving the mysteries of the universe, silence is the key.

Right now, though, the Karoo Astronomy Reserve is not particularly quiet.

Construction is under way: the foundations are being laid for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project, and the bulldozers are moving in.

“This is just the calm before the storm,” says the SKA’s Pieter Snyman.

Astronomers and engineers from more than 70 institutes in 20 countries are designing the SKA project, which will be 50 times more sensitive than any existing telescope and will survey the sky 10 000 times faster .

The data it collects will go to centres across the world.

“The SKA brings inspiration to us here,” says scientist Rupert Spann.

“The SKA will show us things that might confirm all our theories – or blow them out of the water.

“It might answer our questions, but it is sure to give us whole new questions about the secrets of the universe. There is simply so much that we don’t know.”

Telescope operator Audrey Dikgale dreams about making one of the discoveries that will change science forever.

As a girl growing up in Limpopo, the stars fascinated her, and the SKA coming to Africa was partly what encouraged her to study astronomy.

Sudanese astronomy student Sabha Yayha believes the SKA will be at the forefront of science for the next 100 years. “Mysteries will be solved and created here in Carnarvon,” she says.

Snyman says: “We are attracting the best and brightest of the world. Getting 70% of the SKA (Australia is also a host) means that there is not a brain drain but a brain gain here in South Africa.”

“Everyone wants a part of this,” says Spann. “The SKA will be attracting the rock stars of astronomy.”

SKA’s official construction will only begin in 2016. At the moment, scientists use the seven KAT7 dishes, the engineering prototype for the Meerkat project.

Phase one of the SKA plan involves getting another 190 Meerkat dishes up and running.

This will be 10% of SKA’s total instrument and will be ready by 2020 for scientific observation.

Meerkat will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until the SKA is completed.

SKA’s second phase, which will build 3 000 dishes in Carnarvon and partner sites in Africa, will start in 2018 and finish in 2023.

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