SA to draw astronomers with SKA

2011-12-19 20:50

Cape Town - Africa, the birthplace of the human species, has long been a magnet for archaeologists.

Now South Africa wants to draw leading astrophysicists to the continent as well with the world's most powerful radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an instrument that would be able to look back to the infancy of the universe.

SA and Australia are the two finalists in the competition to host the project, which will eventually link thousands of radio dishes to make a massive antenna with a total surface area of one square kilometre.

The telescope, the brainchild of an international consortium of scientists, will be 50 to 100 times more sensitive than today's best radio telescopes and is projected to cost in the neighbourhood of $2bn.

Like an archaeologist digging into ever deeper layers of soil, the telescope will pick up radio waves from deeper in space than ever before, ones whose sources are billions of years old and may not even exist anymore.


Scientists say that power will help them look back in time and see how the universe took shape after the big bang.

For African astronomers, next year will be decisive.

Scientists will decide by early March whether the South African and Australian SKA site proposals pass muster. The consortium will then choose the winner, a decision the South Africans say will be political and economic as well as scientific.

SA also plans to start construction next year on a 64-antenna radio telescope called MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) that would be one of the five most accurate in the world.

Observation slots at the MeerKAT are already fully booked for its first five years.

A prototype, the KAT-7, is up and running in the Karoo.

The government has declared the site, a silent, rocky landscape that looks like a Western movie cast with a few sheep, a "Radio Astronomy Reserve".


The site, which had no trace of human settlement eight years ago, is an hour by road from the nearest town, itself an hour's flight from Cape Town. Like giant white saucers turned to the sky, seven dish antennas capture the noise of the universe with a small, refrigerator-like hum.

"It is a very difficult place to do farming," said Justin Jonas, an astronomer and engineer and the operating director for SKA Africa.

"Which is good for us. It means the fewest people, fewest cellphones and fewest interferences."

South Africa's SKA bid would also put the core of antennas in the Karoo.

Other antennas would be scattered around the continent in Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

Design and pre-construction on the SKA are scheduled to begin in 2013. The project is expected to be finished around 2024.

It is not an ideal time to be raising money for massive science projects. The US pulled out of the SKA in 2010, leaving it to Australia, Britain, China, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands and SA to fund. India is still on the fence.

Negative perceptions

But SA is undeterred. It says it can build the SKA for less money than Australia, which would co-host with New Zealand.

The government has already invested R635m ($75m) in seven years to build MeerKAT and plans to spend another R500m a year to 2016.

"With a project like this, you don't make money, but you get a lot more. You develop scientific capacity," said Nadeem Oozeer, 36, a researcher from Mauritius.

"In Mauritius, we've got five graduates with terminal [doctorate] degrees. Why not an African Nobel prize winner?"

But officials here say they have to overcome negative perceptions of Africa's scientific potential.

"Afro-pessimism is real," said Derek Hanekom, deputy science minister.

"We believe we are the most suitable country to host successfully the SKA, we compete with the best in the world. But we are proceeding anyway and great astronomy is going to be done with or without the SKA."

  • Squeegee - 2011-12-19 21:38

    This is an old article with the addition of two new sentences. This is not news it is an attempt to fill space. The writer has simply reinterpreted the previous article and added the angle of wishing to draw scientists to SA - a logical necessity if SA is awarded the project. Bad SAPA! Bad News24.

      Ian - 2011-12-20 07:03

      Even if it is an old article, it is still news worthy - its something good and positive to read amongst all the murders and corruption stories making the rounds. i hope that it does eventually get built in RSA. its high time we got back to the business of being amongst the technological elite in the world!

  • ludlowdj - 2011-12-20 08:47

    Hope Australia wins, South Africa would be a mistake.

      james.mcquatter - 2011-12-20 10:11

      give us your reson

      Majorus - 2011-12-20 13:45

      DJ suffers from a condition called dollareyes planonlyasfarastoday. All he sees is how much something costs, then he ignores whatever future benefits it may bring. A bit like how third world countries haven't grasped the idea of planning for tomorrow, e.g. they refuse to spend a little money on constructing roads, ignoring the fact that new roads will lead to increased trade and thus higher prosperity in future.

      Jack - 2011-12-20 21:27

      African people do not care much for astrology, that coupled with the political uncertainty of this country were they all demand shares for free, is a good enough reason to let Australia win the SKA. They will at least be grateful and appreciate this new phenomenal radio telescope, and not simply burn it down like the locals always do in South Africa.

      Nicholas - 2011-12-27 06:20

      @Jack ... seriously Astrology?

      spartan888 - 2011-12-27 09:34

      Jack " They will at least be grateful and appreciate this new phenomenal radio telescope" . What utter rubbish. Have you ever met anybody involced in astronomy here in SA?? The SKA would be used to its maximum potential!!! you are an idiot, go to australia already

      colin.dovey - 2012-01-01 10:09

      @ludlowdj - I am reliably informed that going to Oz is like going to a party, and then having to dance with your mother.....boring

      Johnny - 2012-01-01 11:07

      xavier, ever been to Aus? It seems that Africa is for masochists, they can't be happy without suffering and anyone who enjoys a normal life is wrong? Enjoy your suffering.

  • Breinlekkasie - 2011-12-20 11:12

    Alex Irvin and co's mismanagement of Escom might haunt South Africa longer than we think. It is a pity politicians are more interested in failed socio-economic policies like BEE than push their country into the future.

  • Eugene - 2011-12-23 06:29

    Trust the Americans to pull out of a large-scale science project because it is supposedly too expensive, even as they waste trillions of dollars on pointless wars. Anyway, I hope we beat the Aussies on this. We need such things much more than they do. But they'll need proper security at such an array, or those telescopes are going to keep on getting stolen and sold as scrap metal...

  • wolivierGR - 2012-01-01 10:52

    The real threat to this entire project is the government itself wanting to allow Shell to frack the Karoo. Fracking and the SKA cannot happen at the same time, since fracking involves huge numbers of trucks moving constantly causing dust, interference etc. The two activities are not complementary to each other. Time will tell which camp wins the argument.

      John - 2012-01-01 17:18

      You are obviously not up to speed with latest developments. The act passed about 4 years ago designates the areas around the SKA site at Carnavon and the SALT site in Sutherland as special protected areas. Also in a unheard of move the control of these areas was handed over from the Department of Land Affairs to the Ministry of Science and Technology headed by Naledi Pandor. Last year when the minister was asked if the fracking was likely to affect the SKA the reply from the minister was "It isn't going to happen". A pretty plain statement saying that fracking in these areas would not be considered. What happened next was a rapid back-peddling by the government and a stop to any further investigations/exploration for an indeterminate time.

      wolivierGR - 2012-01-02 12:11

      Thanks for all the info John, much appreciated!

  • Zion - 2012-01-01 11:44

    2 billion of whose money? Maintenance and salaries to be paid to staff from which kitty or piggy bank? Expenses for travelling and accommodation for imported technicians to repair that which we cannot do locally. Containers to store the Bisto and with no "Best Before" dates.

      John - 2012-01-01 17:07

      For your information, the Durban University of Technology has been training the technicians and operators for the SKA for the past 2 years. This reduces the number of "imported" technicians that will be required. If SA wins the SKA bid, which is a high probality, then the operating and installation costs will be paid by the European consortium which wants to use the SKA.

  • ed.rybicki - 2012-01-01 11:45

    Forget "Afro-pessimism" - what about sheer incredulity, that our government should spend over a billion rands on the PILOT scheme for a telescope? Have they forgotten about the fact that the National Research Foundatn spends most of its time explaining to local researchers that although their projects are fundable, that they will receive no money, because the NRF doesn't have any for basic research?? While the SKA project may be really worthy in terms of understanding the universe, what about the HIV vaccine projects that are not being funded? What about replacing a fast-aging national search infrastructure? How about expanding the Research Chairs initiative, to increase production of PhDs across the spewctrum, and NOT just in radio astronomy? Spending money on what amounts to vanity projects in this day and age strikes me as being simply foolish.

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