South Africa presents bid for Largest Radio Telescope project

South Africa's Ambassador, His Excellency Rev Makhenkesi Stofile (l) with Mr Derek Hanekom, Deputy Minister of Science and Tehnology/Photo: Embassy of RSA
The South African Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Mr Derek Hanekom, Wednesday presented his country’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.

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Addressing a gathering of business executives, fellow ambassadors as well as members of the media, at the South African Embassy in Berlin, Mr Hanekom described SKA as a massive engineering initiative.

He described the SKA as the world’s largest radio telescope, adding that hosting it and its associated radio astronomy initiatives will transform African science in the field of astronomy.

The Deputy Minister said the project would not only forge, but will also strengthen partnerships adding that South Africa has ideal conditions to host the project coupled with vast natural and geographical advantages that the country has.

Earlier, the South African Ambassador to Germany, His Excellency Rev Makhenkesi Stofile, said in his welcome address that this was “an African bid to host the technological venture”.

Cross section of the invited guests at the presentation/Photo: Musah Ibrahim Musah
Recognizing the capacity that Germany has in technology, Ambassador Stofile expressed the hope that it would partner with Africa “to conquer the world technologically and make the 21st century an African century.”

The Director of South Africa’s SKA Project Office, Dr Bernie Panaroff, described SKA in his presentation “as a very exciting science project for Africa and for the world.”

He pointed out that Radio Astronomy has great public appeal and it has historically led to major technological spin-off especially in ICT.

He said it was a deliberate and long-standing policy of the South African government to pursue research in the field of astronomy and the country is currently working on a number of astronomical projects.

South Africa is already the home of major telescopes which includes the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) gamma ray telescope in Namibia.

It is also building one of the world’s largest radio telescopes, the MeerKAT in its arid Northern Cape Province, and has assembled a team of talented young African engineers, which has achieved all of the milestones in the construction of the telescope ahead of schedule.

MeerKAT, one of the precursors for the global Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project, has also drawn the attention of the international radio astronomy community which has shown considerable interest in the project, both with regard to collaboration during the development of the MeerKAT and in applying to observe it.

The country’s investments in radio astronomy aim to leverage Southern Africa’s comparative advantages that make it an ideal location for astronomy.

As Dr Fanaroff observed in his presentation, the region’s position provides wide coverage of the astronomy rich southern skies and is an optimal location to study “our Milky Way galaxy”.

“South Africa’s Karoo semi-desert has very low population density and very low levels of radio frequency interference, critical for radio astronomy, as well as very little light pollution. At the same time the Karoo has good basic infrastructure of roads, electrical grid power and optical fibre communication networks.”

About SKA and Radio Astronomy in Africa

The configuration of the SKA core and remote stations throughout Africa/Photo:ska office
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is an extremely ambitious global astronomy project and an unprecedented IT and engineering challenge. South Africa is leading an Africa bid to host the SKA, with core site in South Africa’s Northern Cape region with outstations in Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Zambia. It is therefore a truly pan-African initiative and has been endorsed by the African Union.

To appreciate the scale of the SKA:

The SKA will be 50 times more powerful and with survey speeds 10000 times faster than present day radio telescopes, answering some of the most fundamental questions that remain about the origin, nature and evolution of the universe.
When fully constructed (envisioned for 2025), each of the planned 3000 satellite dishes will collect data continuously, generating nine million signals at once. Supercomputers capable of processing one ‘exaflop’ (1,000 million billion operations) per second will be needed, well beyond existing computing capacity.
Power requirements for the SKA will deliver new developments in renewable energy generation and energy saving technologies. These infrastructure and engineering challenges are being tacklec by collaboration between international teams of researchers from academia and industry.

Africa’s participation in the SKA project has already provided significant boost for local research and innovation, attracting and retaining world-class talent and providing an iconic project to attract young people to science and engineering studies.

The presentation at the South African Embassy in Berlin today (November 17, 2011) highlighted exciting African radio astronomy initiatives, such as South African’s construction of one of the SKA precursor telescopes (MeerKAT) as well as plans for an African VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) Network. It demonstrated how sustained investment in education and science related to radio astronomy could be a powerful catalyst in building a dynamic African knowledge economy, offering exciting co-operation opportunities for partners such as Germany.

Musah Ibrahim Musah

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