R200m SKA contract boon for job creation

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 11 Sept 2023
EMSS engineers built the feeds for MeerKAT, the SKA precursor telescope located in South Africa, consisting of 64 antennas.
EMSS engineers built the feeds for MeerKAT, the SKA precursor telescope located in South Africa, consisting of 64 antennas.

A R200 million contract awarded to Stellenbosch-based EMSS Antennas for the production of 60 advanced feed packages – also known as receivers – for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)-Mid antennas in South Africa will be a catalyst for job creation in the country.

This is according to Johan van Staden, MD of EMSS Antennas, in an e-mail interview with ITWeb.

The contact was awarded to EMSS Antennas by the SKA Observatory (SKAO) last week.

The antennas on which these receivers are installed will work together to compile a more comprehensive and detailed picture of the universe, achieving unprecedented levels of sensitivity and amplifying the faint signals received from galaxies billions of miles away, says EMSS.

“This investment and project will run for three years, supporting most of the EMSS Antennas team of engineers and production team, with some additional positions opening up to meet the requirements,” says Van Staden.

Galaxy of possibilities

In a statement, EMSS notes the announcement marks the first feed package contract awarded among participating countries and institutions of the SKAO − a milestone for EMSS Antennas, an Alphawave Group company.

It says the group’s engineers have a notable track record, having built the feeds for MeerKAT, the SKA precursor telescope located in South Africa, consisting of 64 antennas in the Meerkat National Park in the Northern Cape.

EMSS explains that the MeerKAT astounded international astronomers and scientists by exceeding the specified sensitivity two-fold, leading to a number of discoveries, including two giant radio galaxies, among the largest single entities in the universe.

According to the company, the detection of these galaxies in a relatively small patch of sky suggests giant radio galaxies may be more common than previously believed, providing valuable insights into galaxy evolution.

With radio signals coming from vast distances and bouncing off reflectors, it adds, the SKA telescopes will peer millions of years into the past, offering unprecedented insights into the early universe and galaxies of bygone eras.

Dr Ian Heywood, a co-author from the University of Oxford, states: “The MeerKAT telescope is the best of its kind in the world. We have managed to identify these giant radio galaxies for the first time because of MeerKAT’s unprecedented sensitivity to faint and diffuse radio light. This made it possible to detect features that haven't been seen before.”

Following the successful construction of the MeerKAT telescope, construction of the SKA-Mid antennas has now started, which will see 130 additional antennas built on the same site and equipped with advanced receivers.

Says EMSS director and principal engineer Isak Theron: “The SKA project marks the beginning of a new frontier in scientific exploration using leading-edge technology. Our feed package’s sensitivity paves the way for revolutionary discoveries in space and astronomy, and we are excited about playing a part in this scientific and engineering journey to reveal the cosmos’s deepest secrets.”

Mark Harman, SKAO dish project manager, adds: “This contract is testament to South Africa’s technological know-how and is a great example of its vital contribution to the international SKA project. It is the culmination of several years of development, and we look forward to the successful deployment of Band 2 Detectors in the observatory.”

Broad impact

Frans Meyer, CEO of Alphawave Group, adds: “The SKA project’s significance for South Africa extends beyond scientific breakthroughs. It inspires our country’s youth to pursue education and careers in engineering and science, contributing to the nation’s intellectual and technical advancement, and it drives local industries to push their boundaries, particularly in manufacturing requirements. Furthermore, it keeps exceptional engineers and scientists in South Africa, providing a platform for the country's development and progress.

“At Alphawave Group, we have a real talent for investing in the right people and supporting their evolution over time. This news is an excellent example of that.”

Van Staden adds that South Africa is renowned for its excellence in radio astronomy and has made significant contributions to this field, particularly through its involvement in the SKA project.

“The country has a pool of highly-skilled radio astronomy engineers and scientists, who not only contribute to the country's growth, but also have opportunities to work globally, making them valuable assets to the international engineering community.

“South Africa’s commitment to radio astronomy and its investment in infrastructure and human capital have positioned the country as a global leader in this field. The expertise of South African radio astronomy engineers contributes not only to our understanding of the universe, but also to technological advancements and scientific progress on a global scale.”