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SKA boosts SA either way

The radio telescope project will greatly advance science and technology in SA, even without the winning bid.

Read time 6min 00sec

Once again SA and Australia have gone head-to-head in a major contest that will see one country emerge victorious, leaving the other dejected and deflated. However, for a change, the battle is not being fought in the sports arena, but rather in the more rarefied field of astronomy.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project bid, if won by SA, would result in the building and implementation of more than 3 000 satellite dishes across the country, and even the rest of Africa. The International SKA steering committee plans to have an array of satellite dishes with a total radio wave receiving area of one square kilometre. It would be the world's most powerful radio telescope built to date, and scientists plan to use it to examine galaxies and stars far beyond our solar system. Should SA win the bid, on 4 April this year, the array is forecast to be completed by 2024.

South Africa and Australia became finalists for the project as early as 2006, after the International SKA steering committee identified the two countries as most the suitable locations.

The proposed site for the South African SKA project is the small Karoo town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape. SKA's construction could have a windfall extending not only to Carnarvon and SA, but also eight other African partners: Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius and Zambia. The African Union has also thrown its weight behind the bid.

If SA wins the bid then the main impact will probably be our growing importance in science circles globally.

Dobek Pater, director and analyst, Africa Analysis.

An initial budget of 1.5 billion euros and annual upkeep costs of 150 million euros means the potential investment could play a big role in the development of local communities surrounding the Karoo town. Its construction could boost skills development in the fields of science and technology in SA and the rest of Africa as well.

Dobek Pater, a telecoms analyst with Africa Analysis, says the practical benefits would be manifold. “It would attract numerous scientists to the country who, when not holed up at the SKA sites, would be able to impart some of their knowledge and experience to local scientists, students and learners.”

Pater also says that with educational institutions able to extend their various astronomy, quantum physics and space science programmes in order to undertake more analysis of the data from the SKA project, there will be the knock-on effect of attracting greater numbers of students into the related fields of math and physics.

I don't think that I'd be too off the mark if I said that we have more graduates in the pure sciences now then we've had within the last 20 years.

Bradley Frank, PhD student

This effect is borne out by the fact that since 2005, the African SKA Human Capital Development programme has awarded 293 grants for studies in astronomy and engineering. This is coupled with training for technicians and astronomy courses being taught in Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius.

The development programme is focused on training technicians and artisans in the areas surrounding the proposed telescope site in the Karoo, explains Kim de Boer, GM for people, support and development with the SKA project.

“The development programme has, at the same time, been able to assist more then 400 people ranging from undergraduates through to post doctoral studies as well as people studying to be technicians. Essentially we are supporting students at every level,” says De Boer.

Bradley Frank, a student who has benefitted from the funding opportunities, says: “Personally, I would never have been able to fund my PhD by myself, but through this, I was given a comprehensive funding package, which allowed me to learn skills from all over the world.”

Frank says the time for the continent to host a project such as SKA has arrived, as the number of African scientists is at its peak.

“I don't think that I'd be too off the mark if I said that we have more graduates in the pure sciences now then we've had within the last 20 years. It signifies a large and grand re-emergence of Africa, and is a major landmark in the story of the African renaissance.”

Closer to home, Carnarvon and the nearby town of Williston are already experiencing benefits for their scholars. Two laboratories were recently opened at Carnarvon High School thanks in part to the SKA SA project, which has helped to employ maths, science and IT teachers in the area.

But SKA is not set to be the only major radio telescope project in SA, if it does come online. A precursor to the SKA project has been the design and ongoing building of the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Karoo. It is the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere, until completion of the Square Kilometre Array.

Nearly 600 astronomers from around the globe have already submitted proposals to work with the project upon MeerKAT's completion.

“The tourism and hospitality industry in Carnarvon is definitely benefitting from the project as scientists and other people attached to the project flood into town. This will only continue to increase should we win the bid,” notes De Boer.

]The positive aspects of the MeerKAT project are not lost on many observers who have been able to use it as a benchmark when evaluating the likely effects of the SKA project.

“If SA wins the bid then the main impact will probably be our growing importance in science circles globally and expansion of science programmes at home,” emphasises Pater.

For the average South African, a very real benefit would also be the subsequent upgrade and expansion of communications networks in the country, Pater adds. Benefits that could also help improve cross-border connectivity with project partners such as Mozambique and Namibia.

This opinion is shared by Leon de Fleuriot, the chief commercial officer for Econet Wireless, Zimbabwe's leading mobile provider. De Fleuriot is keen to see the SKA project help Africa take a seat at the technology table globally.

“It will put us on the technology map and will create a culture of research that may have lost momentum in our highly commercialised business environment. There will be a positive financial impact,” he said.

Subsequently, the quiet town of Carnarvon could see a tourist boom as well with guest houses and local businesses benefiting as a result of the increased footfall into the town.

The SKA project promises to be a major feather in SA and the continent's cap should it be successful, but already the positive impact of the project has been felt throughout. The attention the bid has garnered, together with the ongoing MeerKAT project and the educational possibilities presented by both has put the country's science and technology sectors firmly on the map and can only continue to raise the profile of these too often neglected fields.

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