The SKA sets universities abuzz
South African institutions are keen to capitalise on the widespread interest the telescope has created, writes Andile Nayika.
South African universities have welcomed the establishment of the world’s most powerful radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
Following the SKA Organisation’s announcement late last month that South Africa, Australia and New Zealand would share the R26-billion project, local academics have spoken enthusiastically about the research, job and study opportunities that will be created.
“The SKA is an international collaboration … It’s a fantastic opportunity for South African graduates to get exposure in the international arena,” said Petrus Meintjes, professor of physics at the University of the Free State.
Professor Ramesh Baruthram, deputy vice-chancellor (academic) and head of the astronomy desk in the University of the Western Cape’s science and technology department, said: “The SKA heralds a new era for African science and technology.” Astronomers at the university are deeply involved in the SKA project, backed by its astronomy group that was started in 2008.
Combined with the existing MeerKAT project, the SKA main site will be at 1000m on a plateau in the Karoo. Construction is due for completion in 2025.
Flooded by applicants
Tim Gibbon of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University said the university’s physics department had 10 years’ experience in optical- fibre telecommunications research.
“Broadband optical fibre forms the backbone of the SKA in terms of transporting and aggregating huge volumes of information collected by the telescope array,” he said.
“Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University aims to assist and advise in the construction of the SKA optical-fibre network and produce highly skilled graduates to maintain and operate the SKA network into the future.”
Since 2005 the National Research Foundation, through its SKA Africa project, has provided nearly 400 scholarships in astrophysics and engineering for SKA-related projects and the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme has paid for nearly 150 scholarships for South African and other African students.
The foundation and the SKA also provide bursaries for students at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University to undertake SKA-related research at the institution. “We were absolutely flooded by applicants. This reflects the tremendous interest from students to be involved in the SKA project,” said Gibbon.
The University of the Witwatersrand, which has participated in the SKA project for the past two years, has appointed Sergio Colafrancesco to promote research and develop high-level skills for the project.
Colafrancesco holds one of the South African SKA research chairs jointly awarded by the National Research Foundation and the department of science and technology.
“Wits is supporting the SKA chair group at various levels, from local logistics and research infrastructure to the support of the overall strategic vision of the SKA research chair,” Colafrancesco said.
The SKA chair group at Wits University is trying to link its astrophysics and cosmology studies with the research activity, he said.
“With this we hope to present career paths from the undergrad level to the postgrad and research assistantship levels, taking the more modern and cutting-edge activities in this research field and the impact of the SKA for the next decades into consideration.
“We at Wits believe that we should create an education path going from the necessary teaching-based approach to the required research-based approach that is needed to manage and exploit the huge information content stored in the future database achievable with the SKA.”
Researchers in the astrophysics and cosmology research unit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal have worked closely with the South African SKA project since its inception nearly a decade ago and now “host a node of the [SKA project’s] astronomy undergraduate bursary programme that will train the next generation of astronomers in South Africa”, said spokesperson Indumathie Moodley.
She said Kenda Knowles, a master’s student at the university, had been recruited by the project to work on data from the Karoo Array Telescope, KAT-7, a radio array comprising seven dishes. Knowles is interested in studying the growth of galaxy clusters, the most massive objects in the universe, held together by gravity.
Rhodes University, whose radio astronomy unit was established more than a half-century ago, has been instrumental in developing the KAT-7 and the MeerKAT array. The lead scientist in South Africa’s SKA project, Justin Jonas, is involved in the construction of these telescopes.
“Jonas was an invaluable guide in designing and building the MeerKAT telescope and infrastructure,” said Bernie Fanaroff, director of the SKA South Africa Project. “Rhodes will be at the forefront of designing the massive SKA radio telescope.”
A number of Rhodes students, including Adrian Tiplady, who was later appointed as site manager for the SKA project, worked on building the MeerKAT telescopes. Rhodes will award a number of bursaries to students to work on the design and development of the SKA.
“These students will be part of the newly established centre for radio astronomy techniques and technologies at Rhodes. The centre has already started working with leading international radio astronomy groups and will play a large role in the design and development of the SKA, bringing together a number of scientific fields, including mathematics, physics and computing,” said Rhodes spokesperson Zamuxolo Matiwana.
Fantastic job of communication
In recognition of the university’s contribution to the design and construction of the telescope and its role in the SKA bid, Rhodes was awarded a chair in radio astronomy techniques and technologies.
Claude Carignan, the South Africa SKA research chair in multi-wavelength astronomy in the department of astronomy at the University of Cape Town, said: “Think of the message [the project] sends to the young generation. It will surely motivate them to think about careers in sciences, which is so essential for the development of the country.”
Carignan, who is Canadian, took up the chair last year. He highlighted the role played by the government in ensuring astronomy’s survival.
“I expected that a majority of engineers would be foreigners like myself but, to my surprise, 80% of them were young South Africans,” he said.
“The government and institutions have done a fantastic job of communication, starting with Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor,” Carignan said.
Gibbon said he sensed “an intense buzz of interest around the SKA project. Most people that I talk to are aware of the project and are eager to know more. This is particularly true of the general public, for which SKA has ignited the spark of scientific curiosity.
“There are insufficient astronomers in South Africa, but the development we’ve seen in the last few years will accelerate with the decision. Now we have to 2025 – 12 years – to increase our capacity.”