Cabinet sets up SKA committee

By Leon Engelbrecht, ITWeb senior writer
Johannesburg, 23 Oct 2009

Cabinet has approved the establishment of an Inter-Ministerial Committee to oversee the final preparations for the South African bid for the R1.6 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

A statement issued yesterday after Wednesday's Cabinet meeting said the “decision follows a discussion on the progress of SA's bid to host the SKA telescope”.

SA has developed a partnership with eight other African nations to locate SKA stations in each country. The countries are: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

Cabinet says the SKA initiative “will benefit ICT infrastructure development and postgraduate student training in engineering, ICT and astronomy in the continent”.

The bid will cost R1.6 billion, over a three-year period, and likely includes the construction of two major pilot projects. Most of the budget required to build the 3 000 to 5 000-dish SKA will be provided by the international astronomical community, with eight European countries - France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK - contributing 40% of the total bill, and the US a further 40%.

By February this year, 19 countries and 55 scientific institutions were involved in the SKA project, and several more countries were expected to join the consortium.

SA is currently in a race with Australia to host the device, described by SKA SA project leader Bernie Fanaroff as the world's largest scientific instrument.

Work on the SKA is due to start in 2013, subject to funding. It will be constructed in a phased manner over seven years, although operations are set to start in 2015, provided a significant portion of the array has been commissioned.

The South African site is at Klerefontein, 78km outside Carnarvon, in the Northern Cape, where the government has by law established a radio astronomical reserve.

The Department of Science and Technology, through the National Research Foundation - that includes the SKA - has already started the construction of a pilot radio telescope at a site 5km north of Klerefontein.

The first dish was erected in July and the entire installation should be completed by year-end. The seven-dish Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7) is a precursor to the larger 80-dish MeerKAT that is scheduled to be completed by December 2012 and commissioned in 2013. MeerKAT is set to cost R900 million and forms part of the R1.6 billion budget, Cabinet announced.

BAE Systems, SA's Land Systems Dynamics division (previously IST Dynamics), in Pretoria, has developed a 12m diameter, 4.5mt composite fibre dish for the project. A trial dish has been undergoing tests at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, southwest of Pretoria, for some months.

Because of their size, a facility has been built at Klerefontein to build - and maintain - the dishes on site.

MeerKAT and the SKA are expected to have a service life of at least 30 years.

Australia, meanwhile, is working on its own proof-of-concept, the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), interestingly located east of the remote west coast town of Carnarvon.

One of the prime objectives of the SKA will be to probe the so-called “dark age” of astronomy, a period in the early history of the universe when it was in gaseous form, before the formation of stars and galaxies.

At present, astronomers do not have the necessary tools to observe radiation from this period, which extends from about 300 000 years till one billion years after the 'Big Bang'.