Expect space agency by November

Johannesburg, 26 Mar 2007

SA should have a space agency by November, says the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

DST chief director of frontier programmes Pontsho Maruping says the agency must still be named and a budget must be drawn up.

The agency will fall under the DST and will co-ordinate SA's exploitation of space and space resources, including the process to secure the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) deep-space radio telescope for the Karoo.

"We are finalising the business case and have developed the corresponding draft Bill. The business case goes through a treasury and cabinet approval process in April," says Maruping.

She says a threat to the timeline is the legislative process to pass a Bill through Parliament to establish the agency.

The SKA will have a collecting area of approximately one square kilometre, which will make it 50 times more sensitive than current instruments.

It may also incorporate multiple independent fields of view, allowing several radio astronomers to observe at once, or to look at different areas of the sky simultaneously.

Government has cited the need to supply this endeavour with broadband as one of the reasons for setting up Infraco.

Innovation needed

An international consortium will decide the final design of the telescope by next year.

The two short-listed sites for the core of the array are an out-of-the way part of the Karoo, 95km from Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, and a similarly remote location at Boolardy in Western Australia. A final decision between the sites will also be made next year.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2010, with initial observations in 2015. The SKA should be fully operational by 2020. It is expected to cost $1.6 billion.

SA National Aerospace Centre of Excellence director Francois Denner says much of the technology required to make the SKA work "does not yet exist".

He says "it must still be developed and there are probably a few Nobel prizes to come from [designing the] focal plane arrays and sensing systems. Another big problem will be the high performance computer power needed to process that vast amount of data."

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