SA bids $50m for telescope

South Africa has allocated nearly $50-million to win the site bid for the world’s largest telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The country is vying against Australia, Argentina and China to host this prestigious European Commission-funded science project.

SKA’s website (www.skatelescope.org) says South Africa’s allocation reached $50-million after $38-million was budgeted last February by Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel to build the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT). This is a 20-dish SKA prototype that will have about 1% of the final project’s receiving capacity.

By giving the go-ahead for KAT, South Africa trumped Australia’s $7-million SKA prototype at Mileura Station.

The European funders of the SKA project are looking for a site with a dry climate far from commercial broadcasters, cellphone networks and other man-made radio interference. Besides a core site, others 3 000 kilometres away are needed for supporting telescopes.

South Africa proposes to use a valley in the Karoo for the core array and seven other African countries will house the remote telescopes. The current configuration of the array requires remote stations in Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Ghana.

Australia proposes to have New Zealand house the remote stations, and Argentina is bidding with Brazil.

All these countries see SKA as a project that will attract the world’s top experts and also encourage their youth to pursue careers in science and technology.

“Hosting the SKA in South Africa will make South Africa a world leader in astronomy and physics; boost high-level skills and cutting-edge technology in Africa; and will attract some of the best scientists and engineers in the world. It will require the fastest data transport networks in the world, and the world’s most powerful computing facilities. It therefore has the potential to seed new industries in key areas of the global knowledge economy,” the KAT’s fact sheet says.

Beyond agreeing to contribute to the cost of building KAT, the government has agreed to fund bursaries and travel grants for work on projects linked to the SKA and the KAT. Bursaries have been granted to two postdoctoral fellowships, five PhD and 10 MSc students for study in South African universities and in Madagascar, Mozambique and Mauritius in 2005 and 2006. In addition, funds have been allocated to 75 research chairs at South African universities.

The SKA committee noted that the South African government has gone beyond allocating funds: it has been the first to rewrite laws to accommodate the project. These range from creating radio-quiet reserves around the proposed SKA site to allowing the project to bypass Telkom’s notoriously high broadband charges.

The final winner will only be known in two years’ time. Once the site has been selected, SKA will be built in stages, leading to completion and full operation in 2020.

The 1% telescopes (the KAT in South Africa and the Extended New Technology Demonstrator in Australia) will start observations in 2010. The 10% SKA Pathfinder will then be built, using the lessons from the 1% telescopes, from 2010 to 2014, on the site selected for the full SKA.

The construction of the full SKA array will only start in 2014. It is certain to add to the long list of fundamental discoveries already made by radio astronomers, including quasars, pulsars and the radiation left over from the Big Bang.

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Robert Laing
Guest Author

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