SKA funding hangover looms

South Africa was overjoyed to have won 70% of the SKA radio telescope hosting rights, but now other countries need to come to the party too. (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

South Africa was overjoyed to have won 70% of the SKA radio telescope hosting rights, but now other countries need to come to the party too. (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

The multibillion-rand Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project has landed in South African hands, but it might be just a notional victory for the country as funding remains in limbo.
With an estimated budget of €1.5-billion (R16-billion) and most developed countries facing their own debt and funding crunch, it is unclear at this stage who will foot the bill, which could be bigger than the projected costs.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor has suggested it could almost double to about €2.5-billion (R26.2-billion), excluding maintenance costs. If she is on the mark, the project will present a funding headache for South Africa.

One of the biggest funders, the United States, has already bailed on the project and the eurozone, which is teetering on the edge of a sovereign debt collapse, is unlikely to meet the initial funding expectation of this huge project that will be housed in the Northern Cape.

After nine years of hard toil, South Africa last week was rewarded with 70% of the location rights (Australia has the remainder), but the expectation is that the eight member countries of the SKA Organisation will all contribute to the total cost of the project.
However, with the global economy on tenterhooks, it is uncertain where the money will come from or whether it will come at all. South Africa, with its R1-trillion infrastructure plans, cannot afford to pay more than what the treasury has already allocated towards the project. There are already warnings from global ratings agencies about South Africa’s growing public debt.

It was initially expected that Europe would fund 40% of the project, a comparable amount would come from the US and the balance from the other countries involved in the project. But in June last year the SKA consortium in the US decided to dissolve following the 2010 Astronomy Decadal survey, which did not give the project a positive funding recommendation.

Funding was a challenge
Because US astronomy and astrophysics projects are commonly selected every 10 years, it means no funding will be set aside for the SKA in this decade, although the US could still possibly join in the next decade. The project is expected to come online in 2024.

In a departmental progress report presented to Parliament last year, Mmboneni Muofhe, chief director of international corporation resource at the department of science and technology in South Africa, said funding was a big challenge with the US not coming on board.

And, in light of continued financial turmoil in the eurozone and fears about the possibility of a Greek exit, it is unlikely that substantial funding from Europe will be forthcoming.

Who is in charge
The project is led by the SKA Organisation, a non-profit company established in December last year. It is a private company in the United Kingdom that does not have share capital but members who are guarantors with limited liability.

Member countries of the organisation are South Africa, Australia, Canada, China, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands and the UK.

Real construction money
The funding model and each country’s contribution still needed to be negotiated, said Justin Jonas, the associate director of science and engineering at SKA South Africa. He emphasised that it was too early to tell what the funding structure would look like. “Every major project in the world has a different contribution model,” he said.

The global economic crisis had not been an issue in terms of the relatively small budget during the preconstruction phase, Jonas said, noting that even Italy was a member country, despite its eurozone woes. However, “it may be an issue soon when real construction money needs to flow”. Although there is no real capital expenditure until construction begins, a contribution is required from each country to fund the design phase.

The minimum contribution required from each of the eight members is €250000 a year, but the UK has opted to pay €2-million a year and South Africa will contribute €1-million. Membership of the organisation will remain open and it is expected that up to 20 members could join in the near future.

Exactly how much money would be contributed by whom and when had been a matter of flux and debate for some time, said Marian Shinn, former Democratic Alliance spokesperson for science and technology and now the spokesperson for communication.

Although letters of commitment were signed by SKA founding member countries in April last year, there was no legal mechanism for following through on their funding pledges, she said.

South Africa’s contribution
Jonas said South Africa had already committed R1.4-billion to the MeerKAT telescope, which could possibly be offset against the total project cost. “We established the heart of it and we cannot afford to put in much more,” Shinn said. “It is an international project and it is time for the other countries to come to the party.”

Jabulani Sikhakhane, the treasury’s chief director of communications, said South Africa’s SKA commitments were and would continue to be funded through the department of science and technology’s budget. “An amount of R835-million has already been spent on the SKA, with a further R547-million budgeted for over the medium-term expenditure framework.”

South Africa’s contribution will come from the overall department budget, which has a projected fiscal allocation of R21-billion over three years. The government is aware of South Africa’s growing debt and the risk it poses. But Konrad Reuss, managing director at rating agency Standard & Poor’s, said: “Government co-funding will not be at a level that would undermine its financial position, hence I don’t see it as a rating factor. The growing public sector wage bill or social transfer, if uncontrolled, would be a greater worry.”

Jonas said, although there would be economic benefits and business opportunities created during the construction and operation phases, participation in the project was not about direct economic impact.

“It enhances the region’s position in the knowledge economy and that will lead to secondary benefits like the development of individuals and institutions that are competitive in the global economy.”

The dummy’s guide to the telescope
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a global science and engineering project to build the world’s largest radio telescope. It will have 50 times the sensitivity and 100 times the survey speed of current imaging instruments.

South Africa’s winning of two-thirds of the bid to host the project affords the entire African continent an opportunity to play an increasingly important role in the global knowledge economy.

According to SKA Africa, the mega telescope will be powerful and sensitive enough to observe radio signals from the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang.

It will search for Earth like planets and potential life in the universe, test theories of gravity and examine the mystery of dark energy.

A prime objective of the SKA is to probe the so-called “dark ages”, when the early universe was in a gaseous form before stars and galaxies were formed. Scientists are optimistic that the SKA will allow many new discoveries about how the universe was formed and what it is made of.

Looking back in time
The SKA will consist of about 4 000 dish-shaped antennae and other hybrid receiving technologies. It will have a core of several hundred antennae and outlying stations of 30 to 40 antennae spiralling out from the core. These stations will be spread over a vast area up to 3000km in extent. The combined collecting area of all these antennae will add up to 1km2.

The SKA will detect electromagnetic radiation (radio waves) and cosmic rays emitted by extremely distant celestial objects, such as stars and galaxies. Because electromagnetic radiation travels at a fixed speed of about 300 000km a second, very distant objects are observed as they were in the distant past.

This will allow astronomers to “look back in time” to observe the early stages of the evolution of the universe.

The SKA must be built in remote areas, as far away as possible from man-made radio interference, which is caused by sources such as cellular masts, radio broadcasts and air traffic navigation signals.

The South African construction site will be in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape near to the towns of Carnarvon and Williston. But the SKA is so large that out­lying stations will be spread out over several African countries, including Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia, Mauritius, Madagascar, Kenya and Ghana. (Source: SKA Africa: ska.ac.za) - Lisa Steyn

SKA timeline
1991: SKA
concept created.
2006: Shortlisting of sites.
2008-2012: Telescope system design and costing.
2011: SKA organisation
established as a legal entity.
2012-13: South Africa selected as main site.
2013-15: Detailed design and production engineering.
2016-19: Phase one construction.
2018-23: Phase two building.
2020: Phase two comes online with first astronomical observations.
2024: Full operation.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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