Africa maps SKA readiness plan

Tyson Ngubeni
By Tyson Ngubeni
Johannesburg, 27 Mar 2014
SKA initiatives will put Africa and its scientists on the global map, says science and technology minister Derek Hanekom.
SKA initiatives will put Africa and its scientists on the global map, says science and technology minister Derek Hanekom.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) is unveiling the first of 64 antennas that will make up SA's new radio telescope - MeerKat.

The DST will launch the first antenna today, along with the MeerKat Karoo Array Processor Building - a data centre for the telescope that is built in an underground bunker on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) site, outside Carnarvon, in the Northern Cape.

Meanwhile, representatives from Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia joined SA's science and technology minister, Derek Hanekom, at an inter-ministerial meeting in Pretoria yesterday, and outlined a joint implementation action plan for the SKA project for the forthcoming year.

The African partner countries hope to implement the continent's readiness strategy for the SKA project by March next year.

According to Hanekom: "The strategy is aimed at advancing radio astronomy programmes and building the requisite capacity in the respective countries for the African Very Long Baseline Interferometer (AVN) and SKA projects."

Hanekom said the scientific initiatives "put Africa on the map in a different way and offers opportunity for African scientists to enter the world".

Ministers at yesterday's meeting agreed to adopt the following resolutions:
* Meet all the minimum regulatory and legal requirements for the successful construction and operation of the AVN and SKA telescopes.
* Develop a vibrant community of researchers and scientists to undertake radio astronomy studies across Africa.
* Develop a pool of engineers, technicians and people with other associated skills to support the design, construction, operation and maintenance of radio astronomy telescopes and related platforms.
* Build institutional capacity in universities, research institutions and government departments that promote the development of radio astronomy programmes and initiatives.
* Mobilise and leverage both the funding and technical resources needed to realise Africa's vision for radio astronomy.
* Facilitate strategic partnerships and collaborative efforts, both regionally and globally.

The SKA will be a mega telescope, about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope. It will comprise about 3 000 dish-shaped antennas and other hybrid receiving technologies, with a core of about 2 000 antennas and outlying stations of 30 to 40 antennas each, spiralling out of the core.

The AVN project involves modifying existing, but redundant, dishes in partner countries that were previously used for satellite telecommunication and re-purposing them into radio telescopes.

This will effectively form a network of radio telescopes across the continent.

Heavy investment

According to this year's national budget, the DST has allocated R2.1 billion to the SKA project, as work starts on building dishes for the 64-dish MeerKat aspect in earnest.

The MeerKat - SA's prototype project - will be incorporated into the SKA.

The second MeerKat antennae is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2013/14 and will be qualified and tested in 2014/15, with the whole system expected to operate in 2016/17.

Meanwhile, government has pledged further support for the project and a recent Cabinet statement said MeerKat "demonstrates that SA can compete with the best when it comes to research, engineering, science and technology".

Construction on the SKA will start in 2017/18, with some parts operational by 2020, and full operation starting in 2025.