Strike delays SKA dish installations

Month-long strike action by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa was one of the reasons for the delay in the installation of dishes for the MeerKAT, the country’s 64-dish telescope and contribution to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), SKA SA director Bernie Fanaroff said.

South Africa has earmarked R2-billion for the construction of MeerKAT, a South Africa-designed and funded telescope for which the first five years of observation time have already been booked.

The plan was to have six dishes operational by November, but only one MeerKAT dish stands on the Karoo site in the Northern Cape. In 2012, it was decided that South Africa and Australia would host the SKA, which will be the largest radio telescope in the world.

With thousands of antennas spread across two continents, the SKA will shed light on some of science’s most enigmatic issues. What is dark matter? Is there other life in the universe? How do galaxies form? Celestial objects emit radio signals, and radio telescopes pick up these signals, which scientists decode to map, analyse and understand the universe.

The MeerKAT, along with Australia’s precursor telescope ASKAP, will form phase one of the SKA. Fanaroff told the Mail & Guardian that, “at the moment, we’re only a couple of months behind, and [the manufacturer] has given us a schedule saying they will catch up”.

South African company Stratosat, in a joint venture with United States firm General Dynamics Satcom, won the largest tender in the MeerKAT construction, a R632-million tender bid for antenna positioners.

In the contract between SKA SA and Stratosat, “there’s a provision for force majeur [unforeseeable circumstances, for which neither side can be blamed]”. The strike was covered by this provision, he said. “We lost two months for the strike: one because of the strike and one to recover production,” Fanaroff said.

Another reason for the delay was the stipulation that 75% of antenna content be made in South Africa. “There was also the issue of getting South African suppliers up to speed”, to know how to produce these antenna components to specifications, he said. “We expect that by March next year we will have four antennas installed and have done acceptance testing.”

This is far behind the schedule provided to journalists last year, which projected that 16 dishes would be working by June 2015. Fanaroff dismissed this, saying “that was never a schedule. It was a projection.”

SKA SA and Stratosat had agreed to contractual milestones, and “they have given us a catch-up schedule”.

Even before these delays, the completion date of the telescope was shifted from late 2016 to 2017.

Asked when final commissioning would begin on the telescope, Fanaroff said “we start commissioning almost immediately”.

Commissioning occurs when the engineers hand the telescope over to the scientists who rigorously test the systems.

“We’ve already done acceptance testing [on the one dish they have installed to see whether it works] … Part of commissioning takes place as we go on, and have array release.” This is when groups of antennas, once installed, are incorporated into the rest of the telescope.

Construction of phase one of the SKA, which involves the incorporation of MeerKAT and ASKAP, will start in 2018, meaning that SKA SA cannot afford further delays.

However, Fanaroff said that the project office “did not expect a delay in the completion of antenna [number] 64”.

Sarah Wild is the author of Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa’s Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, published by Jacana Media in 2012.

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