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What the SKA victory really means

Read time 12min 30sec

It's always so refreshing to see government departments working hand-in-hand to achieve common goals.

The Department of Communications recently held the inaugural ICT Indaba, the aim of which was to formulate an ICT agenda for Africa, in trying to use it as a tool to spur social and economic development.

A key focus in many of the discussions at the Indaba was the need to create and sustain a knowledge economy, as this will attract foreign direct investment (FDI) in ICT research, development and infrastructure.

Speaking at the Indaba, deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe said 70% of employees in the developed world are knowledge workers in some form or another.

“We must remain aware that the biggest commodity in the world today is knowledge, and the ability to generate, access and distribute knowledge has become key determinants for a higher developmental trajectory for any nation.”

How poetic and convenient, then, that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), that SA recently won the majority bid to host, will collect more data in one week than humankind has collected in its entire history.

Knowledge competitor

Last month, the SKA organisation announced that the world's largest telescope will be split between Africa and Australia, with the majority of the project coming to Africa.

The prestige that comes with winning such a large-scale international bid is unequivocal, but the actual benefits for SA are not as immediately obvious.

However, Motlanthe will be happy to know one of the biggest advantages of winning the SKA bid, even if it's only in part, is that SA will now be making a significant contribution to the global knowledge economy.

Scientist at the SKA SA project office, Adrian Tiplady, says it's the indirect benefits that make up the significant socio-economic benefit for SA.

“Investment in basic research infrastructure establishes the necessary capacity within South Africa to compete in, and contribute to, the global knowledge economy. This is necessary to ensure long-term economic growth within South Africa - to move away from a resources-based economy,” he says.

High-tech support

When the board of the African Renaissance Fund approved R120 million for the initial work to construct a network of radio telescopes in the SKA African partner countries, science and technology minister Naledi Pandor said the continent will now receive astronomy research facilities to advance the emergence of the African knowledge economy.

CEO of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI), Neren Rau, also highlights how the SKA will significantly support the expansion of SA's knowledge economy in general and the high-technology industry specifically.

He adds the skills transfer that will happen through the project will assist in addressing the skills challenge in SA. “It will translate into advances in related research fields and technological innovation locally.”

Thousands of scientists

SKA benefits:

* SA entry into the global knowledge economy
* Stimulation of learner interest in science, technology and engineering
* Bursaries for studies in related fields
* Broadband upgrades
* Investments in road and electrical infrastructure
* Job creation
* Tender opportunities for local technology companies
* FDI increase
* Research and development opportunities for local scientists
* Access to global scientists who will be visiting the SKA
* Establishment of SA as a leader in innovation
* Tourism industry boost for surrounding areas
* Supercomputing innovations

In her budget vote speech, on 20 April, Pandor said that, through the SKA, "significant international funding" will flow into SA and its partner countries on the continent.

Tiplady says the FDI into the SKA will be between EUR1.5 billion and EUR2 billion in capital expenditure, with an annual operations and maintenance cost of about EUR150 million per year for the next 50 years.

Although the exact figures are not entirely clear, he says that, as the SKA is designed to distribute data to research centres around the world, the head office in SA will probably see up to 100 scientists, although thousands more will use the SKA from abroad and will probably visit SA.

“Siting the SKA in Africa is a big show of confidence from the international community in Africa's ability to not only host the SKA, but also contribute to the technical designs and scientific programmes as evidenced through the MeerKAT project.”

As a result, the scientist says the SKA will market SA as a viable destination for FDI into high-tech engineering research and development.

“However, the real socio-economic benefits of the SKA are realised in the indirect benefits - increased innovation capacity within SA; human capital development in areas of high-tech engineering and science; and research and development opportunities within SA for local scientists and engineers. Although quite difficult to measure, these benefits, in the long run, far outweigh the immediate economic benefits associated with the construction and operation of the SKA.”

Skills boost

The South African SKA Human Capital Development programme has supported approximately 400 students and researchers since 2005, through grants and bursaries.

Many of these students continue into postgraduate studies and complete their PhDs in astronomy or engineering.

In March, Pandor said R55 million had already been spent on the human capital development programme for SKA SA. From 2012 to 2017, an additional R200 million-plus will be spent.

“In addition to a significant increase in the number of postgraduate students at Master's and PhD levels, these research and development outputs are gradually evolving into near-market prototypes, large-scale technology demonstrators and packaged solutions that can readily address key priorities of government, such as education, health and enhanced citizen interaction with government,” says the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

Kim de Boer, manager of human capital development at SKA SA, says there is a great need to up the skills level in science and engineering, so SA has the capacity to operate and maintain the SKA.

“The scholarships are being offered because we are trying to get more young people interested, especially in radio astronomy, science and electronic engineering. We need people specialising in different capacities, such as the construction, which is engineering; the research, which is science; and the maintenance and upgrades of the machinery, which is technical.”

Tiplady says a couple thousand jobs will be created, many of which will be located within the research and development environment, requiring advanced engineering skills and expertise.

Imparting knowledge

Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow minister of science and technology, Junita Kloppers-Lourens, says the latent socio-economic benefit of the SKA project cannot be overstated. “Aside from the share of the R23 billion capital investment, the attraction of skills and the creation of subsidiary industries is the kind of boost of confidence that is both necessary and warranted.”

The SKA construction will 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.

Infrastructure drive

Square Kilometre Array

The SKA is a radio telescope intended to probe the cosmos for insights into gravity, relativity and other astronomical projects. It comprises a collection of phased array antennae, which collectively form a single telescope with an effective collection surface of a square kilometre, able to provide enormous volumes of data. The antennae will be located in multiple countries; sites are chosen for clear, interference-free air and access to resources and skills.
South Africa bid for the rights to host the project against an Australian/New Zealand consortium, Argentina and China. South Africa and Australia were each awarded part of the contract, with SA hosting the majority of the project, providing a boost for the South African scientific community.
The SKA Organisation is a co-operation of 20 member countries, headquartered in the UK.
The project's budget is EUR1.5 billion, and is expected to commence construction in 2016, to yield results by 2019.
www.skatelescope.org
www.ska.ac.za
The South African site on Google Maps
SKA on Wikipedia

Kloppers-Lourens also says the infrastructure benefits of power, roads and communication cannot be overstated. “Telecommunication will be especially enhanced through the laying of a new fibre-optic cable.”

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

The growth of Africa as a global astronomy hub is a shared vision of African countries to use the increasingly available broadband infrastructure for research and economic benefits, adds Pandor.

“The infrastructure build programme is in the order of 30% of the total budget. The data capacity requirements of the SKA are significant, with many hundreds of Gbps from each of the remote stations needed to connect to the main supercomputer near Carnarvon. As a result, the most noticeable benefits will be in the utilisation of existing, and new, research networks within South Africa,” says Tiplady.

The DST also says mineral prospectors and other enterprises with socio-economic benefits will be able to use the roads, electricity and other infrastructure leading to the remote sites where the telescopes will be constructed.

“The SKA project will drive technology development in antennas, fibre networks, signal processing, software and computing, and power. The design, construction and operation of the SKA have the potential to impact skills development, employment and economic growth in science, engineering and associated industries, not only in the host countries, but in all partner countries,” says the SKA Organisation.

Innovation leader

“We may feel slightly disappointed that we didn't get the whole thing, but I think we must emphasise that we got the majority of it. This really does signal a new era in Africa. We must realise how big this is,” says Justin Jonas of the SKA SA project office.

The African-European Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP) says radio astronomy is recognised as one of the disciplines with the most exciting potential for building Africa's science and technology capacities.

Winning the bid has established SA as a leader in innovation, science and technology, and will have numerous enterprise and job-creation spin-offs.

Early benefits

Carnarvon, in the Northern Cape, and the nearby town of Williston, where the core of the SKA will be situated, are already experiencing benefits for their scholars.

Two laboratories were recently opened at Carnarvon High School thanks, in part, to the SKA SA project.

The SKA SA project says it has committed to helping build up educational resources in the area, forming partnerships with the private sector to support local schools, and working closely with the Northern Cape Department of Education.

The computer lab has 43 desktop computers, a laptop, an interactive whiteboard and a printer, as well as an Internet connection. Optic 1, which built the high voltage power cable and optical fibre cable from Carnarvon to the telescope site, donated R50 000, which secured new equipment for the science lab. The US embassy donated R50 000 for a reading room.

The SKA SA project also facilitated the employment of three qualified teachers for Carnarvon High School, to teach maths, science and IT.

Pandor said the opening of these labs signified some of the early benefits of the SKA.

She added that additional benefits to come with the project are training and development for learners and teachers, local economic development, infrastructure development, and opportunities to enhance SA's capacity to innovate.

Nearly 600 astronomers from around the globe have already submitted proposals to work with the SKA precursor array, the MeerKAT, upon its completion.

“The tourism and hospitality industry in Carnarvon is definitely benefiting 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 GM for people, support and development with the SKA project, Kim de Boer.

Supercomputing

The SKA will require the world's fastest supercomputer and 200Gbps Internet speed to operate.

“It would propel Africa into the 22nd century and drive economic development across the continent,” said deputy director-general of the DST, Val Munsami. “Hosting the SKA will change our economic fortunes.”

The technologies developed by the SKA can also be utilised in other sectors of the economy. Reconfigurable open architecture computing hardware (ROACH) boards and field-programmable gate arrays can be used for high-speed data processing, digital signal processing (important for the migration to digital TV), data storage and high-performance computing.

South African engineers built the building block for the next generation of digital processing systems, according to the DST. “The ROACH board is primarily a South African development and already in use in 300 high-tech facilities around the globe. However, ROACH-2 prototypes are much faster and more powerful. This is all essential preparation for the SKA project.”

SKA SA project manager Bernie Fanaroff explains that the need for such computing speed and capacity in astronomy arises with the expectation that the SKA will collect more data in one week than humankind has collected in its entire history.

Tender opportunities

Local technology companies can expect increased access to procurement opportunities, says the DST.

It explains that it will increase the participation of local companies in major ICT, manufacturing and engineering technology procurement opportunities.

Opportunities under the programme will include the procurement of technology and services for the design and build of MeerKAT and opportunities related to the SKA.

“The SKA has had a significant effect on the local science and technology sector. Many companies that have participated within the MeerKAT project, requiring significant R&D, are now in a position to tender for major international SKA contracts. A number of companies have been able to establish international links and collaboration, and have benefited from the critical mass of scientific and engineering skills within the MeerKAT project,” says Tiplady.

Challenging Einstein

The SKA is a radio telescope intended to probe the cosmos for insights into gravity, relativity and other astronomical projects.

It comprises a collection of phased array antennae, which collectively form a single telescope, able to provide enormous volumes of data. The antennae will be located in multiple countries.

The SKA budget of EUR1.5 billion will be split between the sites, with construction scheduled to begin in 2016. It is expected that some elements will be operational by 2019, with full operation underway in 2024.

The SKA will be the world's largest radio telescope and probably capable of answering questions that we haven't even thought to ask yet, says Fanaroff.

Expected scientific discoveries include understanding the cosmic web of neutral gas, which will unravel how the first stars and black holes were formed.

It will track galaxies to investigate the rate of expansion of the universe and hopefully identify the nature of dark energy. It will also produce three-dimensional galactic maps and detect what are likely to be extremely weak extraterrestrial signals and pinpoint planets capable of supporting life. It will also allow for the study of gravity, which could possibly lead to the theory of relativity being challenged.

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