Recovery plan puts MeerKAT back on track by end of 2015

The MeerKAT, South Africa’s 64-dish radio telescope that will form part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), would be back on schedule by the end of next year, according to manufacturers.

The Mail & Guardian revealed last month that the construction of the R2-billion precursor telescope was behind schedule.

The initial projection was to have six dishes operational by this month, but only one MeerKAT dish – out of 64 dishes – 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.

“Due to the unforeseen strikes, coupled with fabrication obstacles that had to be overcome, we are finding ourselves behind schedule,” said Dr Dieter Kovar, executive managing director at Schauenburg Systems, which owns Stratosat Datacom. 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.

“We have been working with all our major subcontractors on a recovery plan and expect to be back on schedule by the end of 2015 and complete the project on schedule,” Kovar said.

This echoes the statements of SKA South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff, who said: “At the moment, we’re only a couple of months behind, and [the manufacturer] has given us a schedule saying they will catch up.”

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, Fanaroff said. 

“We expect that by March next year we will have four antennas installed and have done acceptance testing.”

New frontier
On November 4, Stratosat celebrated the inauguration of its new panel manufacturing facility in Kempton Park, Johannesburg. “The reflector panels for the first two MeerKAT dishes were manufactured at General Dynamics’ facility in Estonia, after which the fabrication was moved to South Africa,” the company said. 

“The appropriate training and knowledge transfer is taking place and presently the panels for the third antenna are being manufactured in Kempton Park.”

Following manufacture at the Gauteng facility, the panels would be “carefully packaged into giant wooden crates and transported by road freight directly to site”, Kovar said.

Asked what would happen to the purpose-built facility once the MeerKAT is complete – projected to be in 2017, well ahead of the incorporation of the MeerKAT into the SKA which will start in 2018 – Kovar said: “It is Stratosat Datacom’s vision that this facility will serve as a technology hub for the telecommunications industry to promote the further development of radio astronomy research by bringing new technology and skills into the country.”

However, the longer term intention was to manufacture panels for commercial antennas, locally and export them into other regions of Africa, he said.

Fanaroff – who, it was announced earlier this month, would retire at the end of next year – said that they did not expect any delay in the installation of the 64th antenna.

The former astrophysicist would be replaced by Rob Adam, a group executive in charge of the nuclear energy portfolio at Aveng Group.

Adam was previously the chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa, and before that was the director-general in the department of science and technology from 1999 to 2006.

“Dr Adam is not new to the SKA South Africa project; he spearheaded it in its early days when he was at the department of science and technology, and is currently the Chair of the South African SKA Steering Committee,”

The science and technology minister, Naledi Pandor, said, upon announcing Fanaroff’s retirement: “The Steering Committee provides strategic advice and leadership to the SKA SA project, and there will therefore be a seamless transition under his leadership.”

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


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