Hanekom on SKA: Africa needs to bridge the training and skills gap

Africa's challenge is to get itself into a proper state of readiness to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom told African heads of state on Wednesday in Pretoria.

While the spotlight has been on South Africa and Australia sharing the giant telescope, which will comprise thousands of antennae, eight African partner states – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia – will also have dishes in their countries.

"We must not passively wait for the SKA to emerge, but to do everything in our partner countries to make sure we're ready to do it," Hanekom said. Part of the reason for the meeting is to decide and agree upon the SKA African Readiness Strategy, which will lay out each partner country's preparations for the SKA.

The major challenge for the African portion of the SKA is training and skills. "There's a gap between what we're doing now and when we start building in your countries," SKA South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff told the gathering. "We all need to build institutional capacity, technical capacity."

This is part of the impetus for 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.

In 2012, the African Renaissance Fund agreed to put R120-million towards the project. "We won't be there once the telescope is handed over, and those teams need to be able to troubleshoot," Anita Loots, head of the AVN project, previously told the Mail & Guardian.

There are hopes 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. Since 2005, SKA South Africa awarded more than 400 scholarships and bursaries to students, including many from other African countries.

Sarah Wild is author of Searching African Skies: the SKA and South Africa's quest to hear the songs of the Stars. It was published by Jacana in 2012.

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