SA`s SKA spend hits R258m


By Leon Engelbrecht, ITWeb senior writer
Johannesburg, 14 Jul 2009

South Africa has spent R258 million since 2003 to date on securing the 1.5 billion euro Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which, when built, will be the world`s largest radio telescope, says the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

The DST says R23 million of this has gone to a number of South African universities for bursaries, postdoctoral fellowships and grants to promote radio astronomy.

By contrast, R155 million has been spent building roads to the site and R11.5 million on building accommodation, as well as a shed in which dishes for the SKA and its precursors can be constructed.

SKA project head Dr Bernie Fanaroff has called the development the world`s largest IT project.

The SKA will be built either in SA or Australia from 2013 and will start collecting data on the universe from 2018. The decision where to build it - near Carnarvon, in SA, or near Carnarvon, in western Australia, will be taken by 2012.

The first precursor, the seven-dish Karoo Array Telescope (KAT), is scheduled to be completed by December. The first dish is set to be commissioned next month at a site in the astronomical reserve in the Karoo, near Carnarvon, in the Northern Cape.


KAT will be followed by the 80-dish R900 million MeerKAT. Should SA win the SKA bid, 3 000 to 5 000 internationally-funded dishes are to follow. The bulk will be near Carnarvon, but outstations will be placed in Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Madagascar, Kenya and Ghana.

The latest SKA annual report, released in May, explains that space science often has spin-offs for the broader economy.

"One of the major benefits of MeerKAT, which is a very large science facility, will be capacity-building in the Northern Cape and in SA and Southern Africa, and the supply into the economy of highly-trained personnel, expertise in cutting-edge technologies and spin-off technical developments.

"MeerKAT will certainly make breakthrough scientific discoveries. MeerKAT will also attract leading scientists and engineers to work in SA; it will have a major effect on SA`s reputation as a destination for hi-tech investment.

"If the SKA is built in Southern Africa, it will make SA a world centre for astronomy, physics and hi-tech engineering (such as very high-performance computing, very fast data transport, digital signal processing and other technologies crucial to the world economy in coming decades)," the report states.

Investing in science

The annual report also quoted from US president Barack Obama`s address to the American National Academy of Science in April, where he said now was the time to invest in science.

"Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been. And if there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it`s today," he said.

"No one can predict what new applications will be born of basic research: new treatments in our hospitals; new sources of efficient energy; new building materials; new kinds of crops more resistant to heat and drought," Obama added.

"It was basic research in the photoelectric effect that would one day lead to solar panels. It was basic research in physics that would eventually produce the CAT scan. The calculations of today`s GPS satellites are based on the equations that Einstein put to paper more than a century ago."

The SKA annual report adds the research leading to the CAT scan was done by a South African, "working mainly in SA".

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