Eskom’s woes will not affect SA’s SKA efforts – Pandor

South Africa’s electricity woes would not affect its contribution to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said at the weekend.

The SKA will be the world’s biggest radio telescope, with South Africa’s 64-dish MeerKAT forming part of the first phase of what will become the largest scientific experiment on earth. The SKA will be shared between South Africa and Australia, with its core in the Northern Cape.

On Saturday, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Pandor, Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Siyabonga Cwele, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi and numerous ambassadors and high commissioners attended the unveiling of the second MeerKAT dish on the Losberg farm in the Northern Cape. 

The first was launched last year. In the most recent medium term expenditure budget, South Africa’s SKA efforts – including the MeerKAT – were allocated R2.1-billion by the national treasury.

The country has been suffering from an energy crisis, with electricity demand outstripping power utility Eskom’s supply and threats of load-shedding. Businesses and manufacturers have been put under severe pressure by these electricity constraints.

However, Pandor said, on the sidelines of the event, that South Africa’s SKA contribution would not be affected. “We’ve developed a backup system, and can manage [onsite] for three days [without power],” she said. It is important that observing is not interrupted because, without a continuous stream of data, the quality of scientists’ observations would be compromised.

She noted that the department of science and technology formed part of the Cabinet’s “War Room”, a government initiative to address the country’s electricity shortage.

Asked how load-shedding would affect the dish suppliers, who are located in Kempton Park in Johannesburg, Pandor said: “Our contractors should have backups. They know we are deadline driven.”

Last year, the Mail & Guardian reported that due to a strike by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, among other reasons, the construction of MeerKAT dishes had been delayed. 

SKA South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff said at the time that there was a “force majeur” clause in the contract with dish supplier Stratosat, allowing for unforeseeable circumstances for which neither side could be blamed. “We’re only a couple of months behind, and [the manufacturer] has given us a schedule saying they will catch up,” he said in November.

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. About 75% of the MeerKAT has to be made locally.

Justin Jonas, associate director for science and engineering at SKA South Africa, said on Saturday that the organisation had negotiated “fixed price contracts [with its suppliers] which averts risk [on SKA South Africa]”.

All 64 MeerKAT dishes, which will be incorporated into phase one of the SKA in 2018, are expected to be completed at the end of next year, and ready for science by mid-2017. The 2016 manufacturing deadline would put the MeerKAT back on track to meet its deadlines prior to the strike delay.

Ramaphosa on Saturday reiterated the country’s commitment to radio astronomy and science, and welcomed the benefits that South Africa would accrue from its involvement in the SKA project. “The 699 students and postdoctoral fellows that have been supported through the SKA South Africa bursary and fellowship programme are at the forefront of this effort,” he said. “This project is developing technical and artisan skills while producing a new cohort of young scientists.”

Speaking to a marquee of more than 300 people on the site, Ramaphosa said: “Scientists are not born. They are made. They are the products of a society that values knowledge, promotes learning and rewards innovation. They are products of a society that reads, of schools that work and parents that are engaged in the intellectual development of their children.”

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