SKA project changing lives in the Northern Cape

Africa’s part of the global megascience project, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, means that the continent is set to become a sought-after science destination. Over the next few decades, many of the world’s top scientists and research students will visit South Africa to carry out cutting-edge science.

Scientists will use the SKA, a project of the department of science and technology (DST), to try and understand how the universe evolved, how stars and galaxies form and change, and to make discoveries that we cannot even imagine today. It is anticipated that the SKA will help shed light on the origins of the universe.

The SKA will collect and process vast amounts of data and will stimulate cutting-edge advances in high-performance computing. The megascience project, hosted in Africa and Australia, will be completed by 2050. South Africa’s share of the project is under construction in the Northern Cape, outside the town of Carnarvon.

As part of the SKA project, the DST is constructing the MeerKAT telescope, an array of 64 dishes, scheduled for completion by next March. Engineering and construction on the MeerKAT has been progressing well, with the first set of 16 antennas connected into an array, known as Array Release 1 (AR1), launched in June 2017.

In order to build MeerKAT, SKA SA developed the engineering testbed KAT-7 (Karoo Array Telescope) with seven dishes spread out over 200m producing the first radio images of galaxies in 2012.

The science, technology and engineering involved in the building of what will be the world’s most sensitive telescope is so phenomenal that the head of the operations at the SKA office based in Cape Town, Dr Lindsay Magnus, says the project may be able to provide answers to “big astronomical questions”.

“The MeerKAT project is looking at how galaxies have evolved and is testing various theories that will make us see things in a different way,” said Magnus.

Not only is this project exciting the global scientific community, it is also making a huge impact in the lives of the people in and around Carnarvon, Williston and Vanwyksvlei.

To date, the project has created a total number of 7 284 direct and indirect jobs in the local communities. Some of the jobs were created through the building of the new road leading to the SKA core site, 90km away from Carnarvon, almost halving the time it took to travel from the town to the core site.

Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor held a public participation programme at Carnarvon Primary School on Saturday, and unveiled the new road connecting Carnarvon to the SKA core site. She said that road infrastructure in South Africa was a major problem, particularly in rural areas.

“This development illustrates that if we collaborate with the local, provincial and national government, we can develop infrastructure than can serve the entire community,” said Pandor.

“This will be a much-travelled road, and you have to ensure that people can travel with safety. What we have been trying to do with the provincial government is to accelerate projects for infrastructure development that benefit the entire community.”

The SKA contracted NMC Civils to train and upskill local contractors to enable them to bid for subcontracting jobs and to prepare local contractors for their participation in the project. With the moving of the SKA Technical Training Centre from Kimberley to Klerefontein, expectations are high that many young people will be recruited to create a pool of artisans and semi-skilled workers in Carnarvon and other nearby towns.

Twenty-year-old Simone Pieterse is one of the students at the centre who would like to give back to the community after qualifying as an electrical engineer next year.

“I give the SKA project a thumbs-up because it is creating opportunities that were never there before. It is interesting and has made me learn many things I did not know before,” said Pieterse. “I would like to volunteer and motivate my peers to benefit from this project too.”

Pandor said it was her hope that Carnarvon would produce young men and women who will bring solutions to problems like drought in the Karoo.

“It is my hope that out of this community will come out a young man or woman who will help the world overcome TB and malaria. It is my hope that this will come out of what we are doing in Carnarvon. We want to make a difference, and we believe that difference can be made through science.”

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