Mega science SKA project to deliver job gains

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
Johannesburg, 13 Jun 2023

South Africa estimates the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project will create over 16 000 job opportunities.

This, in addition to the 5 606 direct job opportunities already created by its precursor, the MeerKAT radio telescope, according to higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

Nzimande was responding to a Parliamentary question from EFF MP Thapelo Mogale, about the SKA project’s skills development and employment opportunities in SA.

South Africa and Australia are the joint hosts of the SKA telescope project, an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with eventually over a square kilometre (one million square metres) of collecting area.

In the reply, Nzimande says using the same independent economic modelling exercise to calculate the job opportunities created through MeerKAT, his department has been able to determine the construction and operation of the SKA telescope over the next 10 years will create a further 16 475 job opportunities.

He notes that projections on job opportunities are based on a 10-year horizon, starting in 2023.

Says Nzimande: “This number will continuously be reviewed to always ensure the best available data. In addition, appropriate monitoring has been put in place to enable reporting of direct job opportunities that will flow from SKA construction, due to commence this year.”

When complete, the SKA project will operate over a wide range of frequencies and its size will make it 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument.

With receiving stations extending out to a distance of at least 3 000km from a concentrated central core, the SKA will exploit radio astronomy’s ability to provide the highest resolution images in all astronomy.

Construction of the giant radio telescope project began last year, with projections showing the project will be completed in 2028.

The MeerKAT radio telescope was inaugurated in 2018, consisting of 64 antennas spread over a diameter of 8km in the Northern Cape. It has made some ground-breaking discoveries.

Nzimande notes skills development has been ongoing since the commencement of the MeerKAT project.

He explains: “The scope of skills development is broad and is further supported by strategic skills development interventions undertaken through the human capital development bursary programme of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO).

“At a national level, the design and construction of the SKA will enhance the development of skills in data science, compute and big data storage technologies, electronic engineering, radio frequency engineering, software development, project management and systems engineering.

“These skills are extremely relevant in the fourth industrial revolution and are easily transferred, as we witnessed when SARAO was appointed to coordinate the National Ventilator Project in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Additional skills development interventions undertaken within the Karoo ensure these communities are able to participate meaningfully in the construction and operation of the SKA. This includes business development skills for local SMMEs, as well as artisan training (such as the training of electricians), which has catalysed the development of an Artisan Training Centre in Carnarvon.”

According to the minister, following the development of the astro-tourism strategy, SARAO is piloting a programme to train youth in the Karoo as astro-tourism guides, with the intention of exploiting potential astro-tourism opportunities in the future.

“This will be enhanced through the establishment of the SKA Science Tourism Visitor Centre and this project is currently going through the detailed engineering design phase,” he states. “SARAO participates in various outreach programmes that are organised by the Department of Science and Innovation and its entities for the youth from the townships.”