SA’s giant eye on the sky

2012-05-26 00:00

CAPE TOWN – South Africa received the lion’s share of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) yesterday after toiling for it for nine years.

It is perhaps the largest scientific project of the 21st century and about half of the thousands of antennae that will comprise the radio telescope will be located in SA, with the balance to be built in the eight African partners. Although the SKA Organisation announced yesterday — on Africa Day — that the telescope will be shared by South Africa and Australia/New Zealand, the local economy can look forward to tenders of hundreds of millions of rand until at least 2024.

During a news conference in Pretoria yesterday afternoon, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said: “The SKA site recommendation committee made an objective technical and scientific assessment of the sites in South Africa and Australia and unanimously indicated that Africa was the preferred site. [But] a meeting of the members has decided to split the project, which is an unexpected decision given the search for a single site,” she said.

Asked whether it was a political decision she said: “It is known that Australia complained [after the site recommendation report had been submitted]. My question is, if the committee had recommended Australia, would someone have heeded Africa’s complaints?”

But Pandor added that an “iconic project is coming to South Africa and we must celebrate. I’m overflowing with joy.”

She said the SKA will attract hundreds of scientists to South Africa.

The countries that decided where the SKA would be based were Britain, Italy, Germany, China, Canada and the Netherlands.

Speaking from Amsterdam, where the SKA Organisation and its member countries met yesterday, SKA Africa head Dr Bernie Fanaroff told Weekend Witness, “There were one or two countries that wanted to keep Australia in.”

Fanaroff added that two-thirds of the SKA, which will be erected in South Africa on the site 95 km north-west of Carnarvon, will still be the “largest scientific project on local soil”.

“Its infrastructure will be enormous.”

He said he was glad about the announcement, but that “the hard work will start now. It has been a very long, hard and complex process.”

SKA Africa’s director of science and engineering, Professor Justin Jonas, said this is a turning point for South Africa. “We will no longer be known as just a tourist destination and a place rich in resources. The country will become a scientific destination.”

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