PICS: SA to benefit as R5.5bn SKA construction projects begin

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 06 Dec 2022
An artist's impression of the future SKA-Mid dishes in South Africa. (Credit: SKAO)
An artist's impression of the future SKA-Mid dishes in South Africa. (Credit: SKAO)

Construction projects valued €300 million (R5.5 billion) at Square Kilometre Array (SKA) sites in South Africa and Australia have commenced.

In ceremonies at both sites in Australia and South Africa, the SKA Observatory (SKAO) yesterday celebrated the start of construction of its world-leading radio telescopes and announced €300 million worth of construction contracts.

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.

Professor Philip Diamond, SKAO director-general, travelled to Western Australia to represent the observatory at the site of the future SKA-Low telescope.

SKAO Council chairDr Catherine Cesarsky attended the event in South Africa’s Northern Cape province where the SKA-Mid telescope will be located.

In her address, Dr Cesarsky said: “The SKA project has been many years in the making. Today, we gather here to mark another important chapter in this 30-year journey that we’ve been on together. A journey to deliver the world’s largest scientific instrument. After 18 months of intense activities around the world, we are starting construction of the SKA telescopes.”

Over the past 18 months, over 40 contracts worth more than €150 million (R2.7 billion) have been entered into by the observatory.

On Monday, major new construction contracts worth over €300 million were announced at the ceremonies.

Paving the way

Earlier this year, Dr Blade Nzimande, higher education, science and innovation minister, said local companies and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory will benefit from some of these contracts, as it is taking a leading role on the work packages that will be rolling out the required infrastructure at the telescope site in the Northern Cape.

The giant radio telescope is expected to be completed in 2028.

Says Nzimande on the ceremonies: “On behalf of the South African government and its people, I congratulate the SKA Observatory on effectively managing the complex process of planning and designing the SKA telescopes.

Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande and SKAO Council chair Dr Catherine Cesarsky unveiling the plaque to signal the commencement of construction of the SKA project. (Credit: SKAO)
Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande and SKAO Council chair Dr Catherine Cesarsky unveiling the plaque to signal the commencement of construction of the SKA project. (Credit: SKAO)

“I also wish to congratulate SKAO in managing the complex intergovernmental interactions that resulted in the formation of the SKAO itself and the signing of the hosting agreements with Australia and South Africa.”

He adds: “The South African government welcomes the opportunities that will flow into the country, due to the construction activities of the SKA. Local companies will benefit from construction contracts [and] local people will find jobs. The financial resources flowing into the country will also uplift the economy of South Africa.”

Minister Ed Husic from Australia and South Africa’s Nzimande announced more than €200 million (R3.7 billion) for Australian and South African companies to deliver some of the extensive infrastructure required for the telescopes.

The SKAO also announced the major contracts – worth €100 million (R1.8 billion) – to manufacture the antennas for both telescopes, bringing the total amount of construction funds allocated so far by the observatory to close to €500 million (R9.1 billion).

The construction commencement ceremonies took place 18 months after the SKAO’s council approved the building of its two telescopes.

The SKAO, in a statement, notes initial procurement concentrated on developing software, contracting professional services firms to help oversee construction, and bulk-buying components such as programmable circuit boards currently in short supply worldwide.

These 40 or so contracts paved the way for construction to start on site, it says.

In South Africa, the observatory says this phase will eventually see 133 SKA dishes added to the existing 64 of the SKA-precursor telescope MeerKAT to form a mid-frequency instrument.

Australia will host a low-frequency array of 131 072 antennas shaped like Christmas trees, allowing the two telescopes to cover a wide swath of radio frequencies, it adds.

SKAO points out the telescopes require vast infrastructure. Listed company Ventia will put up site-wide power and fibre infrastructure in the SKA-Low telescope’s core and spiral arms and fabricate and commission the central and remote processing facilities.

In South Africa, the Power Adenco joint venture will construct gravel access roads, cast dish foundations, lay on power and optical fibre networks, erect security fencing, and more.

The commencement of construction ceremony in South Africa. (Credit: SKAO)
The commencement of construction ceremony in South Africa. (Credit: SKAO)

Competitive tendering also took place to procure the telescopes’ lead components: the antennas and dishes themselves. On Friday, 2 December, the SKAO finalised the two contracts for this critical hardware.

Italian company SIRIO will build the low-frequency antennas for the SKA-Low telescope in Western Australia, with participation from the UK.

In China, one of the observatory’s long-term partners, CETC54, will manufacture the SKA-Mid telescope’s dish structure.

Parts will be produced in several countries, including Italy, Spain and South Africa, says the observatory.

Uplifting local communities

In their announcements, the science ministers elaborated on the contractual conditions the SKAO placed on infrastructure providers to include local communities.

In SA, the lead infrastructure contractor is required to spend a proportionate amount locally by providing a range of sub-contract opportunities to local SMMEs, on employing, training and transferring skills locally and on other community development initiatives.

In Australia, the aim is to create nearly 100 new roles for the Wajarri Yamaji and locals in the Mid-West region of Western Australia.

With its large infrastructure and telescope component contracts in place, the SKAO says it is on track to reach its next milestone – ensuring the first four SKA-Mid dishes and six SKA-Low stations (of 256 antennas each) work together as a telescope.

The first two antenna stations are due to be completed by May 2023, while the first dish is set to be installed in April 2024, followed by three to four dishes each month.

According to the observatory, procuring mass-produced dishes and antennas represents a step-change for radio astronomy.

It explains that instead of bespoke and one-off components, manufacturers can develop new techniques to produce such elements, potentially offering new product lines.

Thanks to the telescopes’ design as interferometers – where the signals of multiple telescopes are combined to act as one giant telescope – the first notable scientific results can be expected before the telescopes are completed at the end of the decade, it notes.

The SKA telescopes will be managed from the SKAO’s global headquarters at Jodrell Bank near Manchester in the UK.

Scientists will use the two arrays over the course of their expected 50-year lifespan to answer crucial questions about the earliest epochs of the universe, and unravel some of the most profound mysteries in astrophysics.

“The SKA telescopes will truly revolutionise our understanding of the universe,” said Dr Cesarsky. “They will allow us to study its evolution and some of its most mysterious phenomena in unprecedented detail, and that’s really exciting for the scientific community.”