The decision to assign the lion’s share of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project to South Africa has been welcomed by the local scientific community.
The SKA Organisation on Friday announced that the site would be split between South Africa and Australia.
“The majority of the members were in favour of a dual-site implementation model for SKA based on the Site Options Working Group’s work,” the organisation said in a statement.
“The SOWG work shows that a scientifically justified and technically viable approach is possible, and concludes that in SKA1, viable dual-site implementations exist that not only maintain, but add to, the scientific appeal of the first stage of SKA. A dual site also offers a model which maximises the financial viability of the project in the longer term, through continuation of the current Organisation membership and a global character that will be attractive to future members.”
Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science & Technology, comments: “After nine years of work by the South African and Australian SKA site bid teams, the independent SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC), composed of world-renowned experts, carried out an objective technical and scientific assessment of the sites in South Africa and Australia, and identified by consensus Africa as the preferred site.
“However, in order to be inclusive, the SKA Organisation has agreed to consider constructing one of the three SKA receiver components in Australia. Two will be constructed in Africa. A meeting of the members has decided to split the project which is an unexpected decision given the search for a single site. We had hoped the unambiguous recommendation of the SSAC would be accepted as the most sound scientific outcome. We accept the compromise in the interest of science and as acknowledgement of the sterling work done by our scientists and the excellent SKA project team.”
She points out that an important aspect of the site decision is the recognition of the MeerKAT telescope, being designed and built in the Northern Cape Karoo by South African scientists and engineers, as a critical step towards the implementation of the SKA.
“The MeerKAT will supplement the sensitive SKA Phase 1 dish array, providing the majority of the collection area of what will be the most sensitive radio telescope in the world,” she says. “This recognition is substantive evidence of the great strides made by the local radio astronomy community since South Africa signalled its interest in the SKA.”
Pandor concludes: “The SKA project is a global scientific enterprise to build one of the largest scientific instruments ever envisaged. It is being designed to answer fundamental questions in physics, astronomy and cosmology in order for us to understand the origin and workings of the Universe better, and to reveal new and unexpected phenomena that will enthral and challenge us. Since 2005, we have awarded nearly 400 grants and bursaries to postdoctoral fellows and PhD and MSc students and undergraduate students.
“We remain committed to the SKA project.”
The University of Cape Town has enthusiastically welcomed the decision by the SKA Science and Engineering Committee (SSEC) and its associates to assign a portion of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) of radio telescopes to South Africa.
The majority of SKA dishes in Phase 1 will be built in South Africa combined with MeerKAT. Further SKA dishes will be added to the ASKAP array in Australia. All the dishes and the mid frequency aperture arrays for Phase II of the SKA will be built in southern Africa while the low frequency aperture array antennas for Phase I and II will be built in Australia and New Zealand.
Professor Danie Visser, the deputy vice-chancellor at UCT responsible for research, comments: “This is one of the biggest scientific research ventures ever undertaken and it confirms that developing nations can also be a part of solving the big questions of our day. It will bring scientists from all over the world to South Africa (and to UCT in particular) and thus greatly enhance not only South Africa’s but also UCT’s international research collaboration. SKA also brings important opportunities for job creation and the development of the country as a whole.”
The university’s Astronomy Department is the only dedicated, independent, university department focused on astronomy in South Africa, with strong ties and joint positions with the SA Astronomical Observatory and increasing interaction with the SKA SA project office. It has partnerships with other astronomy groups in South Africa, and through the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme; and with other universities and agencies in Africa, Europe, Australia and North America. Until the SKA is completed, the 10-year MeerKAT project offers one of the largest radio telescopes in the world for research.
For the next decade it will remain the most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. The completed MeerKAT array will comprise 64 dishes of 13,5m in diameter; its precursor, KAT-7 with seven dishes, is already functional. Four out of 10 key science projects assigned to the MeerKAT array of radio telescopes in the Karoo are already led or co-led by researchers at UCT.
Professor Renée Kraan-Korteweg, the head of the Astronomy Department at UCT, says: “There is a shortage of good astronomers, in particular radio astronomers in South Africa – especially for the facilities we expect to be built or expanded, which will offer opportunities for recruiting at staff and post-doctorate levels. UCT’s goal is to train future leaders in radio astronomy for these kinds of opportunities. A degree in astronomy and astrophysics is also useful for careers in other branches of science, as well as engineering,
“MeerKAT has already started reversing the brain drain in this region by attracting talented researchers from other parts of the world. MeerKAT and SKA are attracting South African researchers to return after post-grad or post-doctoral study elsewhere.”