What price a peek at the galaxy?

Square Kilometre Array (SKA) scientists and engineers are at this moment trying to predict what the world will look like in 2020. More than 350 of them, representing 18 nations and hailing from nearly 100 institutions, universities and industry, are trying to determine what will be possible technologically and how much it will cost as they design the world’s largest radio telescope.

This week, the Mail & Guardian reported on its website that the initial estimates for phase one of the telescope – involving the incorporation of South Africa’s 64-dish MeerKAT and Australia’s Askap telescope into the SKA, which will comprise thousands of antennae in Australia and Africa – are three times the capped €650-million budget, at €1.8-billion.

SKA Organisation director general Phil Diamond said the high ballpark figure was expected. He used the computing costs, which accounted for about 30% of the €1.8-billion figure, as an example: “Those computing costs were what we would have to budget to deliver the maximum performance of SKA1 [SKA phase one] on the day we turned it on, which is a nonsense scenario. What the computing consortium delivered to us, as requested, was the maximum costs of the various computing subsystems and the scaling laws, so we can estimate the real budget for the start of SKA1 and how the capabilities would be phased over time,” Diamond said. “The true budget for computing is a small fraction of the maximal cost.”

There is also the fact that computing costs are continuing to decline. This is governed by an observation called Moore’s Law, in which the cost of computer hardware drops dramatically as the performance increases.

This means that by the time SKA phase one construction begins, the costs should be substantially lower.

Design modifications
SKA South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff said: “In most cases, they [the design consortia] were instructed to design for the extreme case … and it’s been clear for a long time that there would have to be rebaselining – in other words, modifications to this design.

“There are already very clear options for dramatically reducing costs.”

He said that, at the SKA board meeting in Manchester last week, “the report given to the board was that you can maintain almost all of the science objectives and still come in within the money”.

He also said that it was important to design and build the SKA for its capabilities, rather than for specific science cases.

“By the time this is built, the science will have advanced and some of the [existing SKA] science cases may have been already done by MeerKAT [or other instruments] … With an instrument like this [the SKA], which goes beyond anything built up until now, you expect the main product to be serendipitous discoveries,” he said.

Serendipity is when scientists make accidental discoveries, uncovering something they did not expect to find. This is recognised as an important influence in scientific discovery.

“[These discoveries] are not part of the [SKA] science case,” Fanaroff said. “Because no one knows they exist.”

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 (Jacana Media, 2012).

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Roads flooded, buildings washed away in latest Durban downpour

No deaths have been reported after mudslides caused by heavy weekend rains

Nthikeng Mohlele comes up short with ‘The Discovery of Love’

The talented novelist Nthikeng Mohlele’s debut short-story collection lacks the vitality that makes short stories magical

What is at the root of white anxiety in post-apartheid...

Some white people think any discussion of racism or its legacy is an attempt to shame or condemn them for the ‘sin’ of their whiteness

OPINION| ANC’s socialist thinking is crushing South Africa’s future

The Cold War ended more than three decades ago. That period of history showed that socialism, at a country scale, is unsustainable

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…