All systems go for SKA

Reaching for the stars: South Africa's MeerKAT telescope in the Karoo will form part of the SKA. (Halden Krog/Gallo)

Reaching for the stars: South Africa's MeerKAT telescope in the Karoo will form part of the SKA. (Halden Krog/Gallo)

African ministers of science and technology will return home this week with a plan to ready their countries for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and a network of radio telescopes on the continent.

The giant telescope, which will comprise thousands of antennae in Australia and Africa with the core in South Africa, will be the largest scientific experiment in the world and will attempt to answer some of humanity’s most enigmatic questions, such as: Is there other life in the universe? How do galaxies form? And what is dark matter?

South Africa will host the core of the world’s largest radio telescope in collaboration with Australia, and eight African partner countries – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia – will also host satellite stations.

Ministers and representatives of the partner countries met SKA South Africa and Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor in Pretoria on Wednesday and signed a draft memorandum of understanding outlining the “readiness strategy” and “plan of action” for hosting the SKA in their countries.

  “We’ve been trying to look at how we can make the relationship more formal with a clear indication of the undertaking that each of us [specific countries] agreed to,” Pandor told the Mail & Guardian.

Full partnerships
“We’ve begun to set out the plan of action for partnerships among the nine of us, indicating how we will resource the initiatives [the SKA is only one part of the agreement]. We want full partnerships – South Africa is not a donor; [nor is] the [international] SKA [organisation].”

This strategy focuses on governance of the African SKA consortium, communications and outreach, human capital development, institutional capacity, technology transfer and development, roll-out and compliance, the big data Africa programme and strategic partnerships and funding resources.

The big data programme will see high-performance computing facilities in all African partner countries. Big data – the ability to process and analyse huge quantities of data in real time – is an important component of the SKA, and African partner countries will need home-grown capabilities if they are to benefit from developments in the field.

Countries have been given different responsibilities in these areas. For example, “South Africa will lead in drafting the terms of reference and the legal instruments identified for formalising the governance structures and commitments,” the department of science and technology said on Wednesday. “Ghana will lead in drafting the communications and the regional awareness strategies, and the other African partner countries will nominate representatives to work with Ghana.”

Running alongside the continent’s SKA activities is the African VLBI Network (AVN). VLBI stands for very long baseline interferometry, in which four or more radio telescopes observe a single celestial object simultaneously and in effect act as one big telescope.

For decades, South Africa’s telescope at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory was the only VLBI telescope in the country plugged into European networks. The plan is to mimic in other African countries what SKA South Africa has achieved at home – building a sustainable and burgeoning pool of engineers, scientists, technicians and artisans who can work on the different aspects of radio astronomy.

Converting old telecoms dishes In 2012, the African Renaissance fund agreed to put R120-million towards the SKA. A telecoms dish in Ghana is in the process of being converted and there are discussions under way in other countries to convert their old telecoms dishes.

“We also agreed on the AVN project roll-out and the compliance,” Pandor said. “The ministers are very excited … [but] after the next meeting, I don’t want all South Africans reporting, [I] want the other officials [from other countries].”

Earlier this month, the SKA organisation approved the phase one design of the giant telescope. Construction will begin in 2018. The African satellite stations will be included in the second phase of the telescope, with construction for SKA2 only beginning in the mid-2020s, SKA South Africa says. The SKA is expected to be ready for science in 2024.

 
Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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