African ministers met in South Africa to discuss the progress of the Square Kilometre Array which will be built in South Africa and Australia. Already Nine African countries are committed to the project, as well as several other nations. It will be partly located in Australia.

 SKA_ministerial_meeting_article   African ministers and delegates met in South Africa to discuss the progress of the Square Kilometre Array this week in Pretoria. (Image: Supplied )


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Melissa Javan

A design for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope has been agreed. The head of the Africa leg of the project made the announcement on 25 March at a gathering of delegates from several African countries.

Dr Bernie Fanaroff, the director of SKA Africa, said this was one of the highlights of the project. "We plan to kick off in April or May with the funding agreement treaty."

He and Naledi Pandor, South Africa's minister of science and technology, met senior officials of countries like Kenya, Madagascar and Ghana at a three-day ministerial forum meeting of the SKA African Partner Countries. This meeting was held in Pretoria and ran from 23 to 25 March.

Fanaroff explained the SKA project: "We want to build a big telescope to view faint objects that are very far away in the universe. We can't build that big a dish, so we're planning to build smaller ones. That way we can connect them and feed their signals together."

This is called an array telescope. Plans for the project included site decision, which took place in 2012; the design phase of the telescope, between 2013 and 2017; and from 2018 to 2023 construction of phase one would take place. "We want to establish an international treaty organisation for the SKA by 2017," said Fanaroff.

 SKA_telescope_article   The phase 1 of the SKA construction will be done in the Northern Cape of South Africa by 2023, and another portion will be in Auastralia. (Image: Mediaclubsouthafrica.com )

Phased construction

Construction of phase two would be done by 2030. Fanaroff said the SKA phase one sites would be in the Northern Cape of South Africa and in Australia. "In South Africa, we will have 133 dishes for SKA phase one, plus the 64 dishes of the MeerKAT project."

He showed his audience what the dishes would look like in each phase. They had a tight room, which was kept closed, so that no radio waves could leak out and interfere with the telescope. Research would be conducted in this room. Nine African countries are committed to SKA.

Pandor said China and India were already active partners in the SKA project, and Brazil and the Russian Federation had expressed a strong interest in being involved. "These are important developments for the continent as we prepare to host the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope.

"The first phase of the SKA is worth a capital investment of €650-million (R8.5-billion)," she said. Construction of the world's largest radio telescope would take place in two phases. "In phase one, about 200 parabolic antennas will be erected in South Africa, while Australia will have more than 100 000 dipole antennas, which resemble television aerials. Phase two will extend the array into other African countries, with the Australian component also being expanded."

African hub of excellence

She said the aim was to identify and develop 200 African universities to constitute a hub of excellence relevant to the needs of African development by 2063.

"As I conclude, I wish to remind you that when South Africa hosts the African Union Summit in June this year, our leaders will be able to report the role that we are playing in the implementation of the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa, in particular with regard to human capital development, and our progress on the AVN and the SKA," she said. "This will be in accordance with commitments to the SKA project expressed in the declarations made at the AU's General Assemblies in both 2010 and 2012."

AVN is the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network.

Delegates from several countries said they had already identified land for their involvement with the SKA, even though they would only become involved in phase two. Botswana has identified three sites, Zambia one site, and Mozambique three sites. Some would ask that the SKA be mentioned in upcoming budget speeches in their nations.

Asked about the impact of the SKA on poverty levels in the host countries, Pandor said the hope was to lift the character of communities with the SKA through education and science. She gave as an example Williston in Northern Cape, where wireless networks had helped schoolchildren. "Learners are winning scholarships for maths and physical science. A science centre was built by the community.

Poverty alleviation

"We are asking you not to measure us on the basis of what is happening to hunger today, but what we will achieve in the next 10 years."

Dr Machel Kaingu, Zambia's minister of education, science and vocational training, was sure that the SKA would help to improve the lives of Africans. "The problem in Africa is that productivity is low. The SKA will help improve the land, develop crops. This will help the productivity in Africa."

Leda Hugo, Mozambique's vice-minister of science and technology, higher and professional education, said even though there might not be direct poverty relief through SKA, students from previously disadvantage backgrounds would have access to the project through education.

Pandor advised the delegates to deliver on their promises even if elections were taking place at home. "I am really excited to be working with you as committed partners. All of us believe in what we must do for science."

One of the resolutions was that a drafted memorandum of understanding and co-operating in astronomy was to be signed by each country's delegate by next year's ministerial forum meeting, which would be held in March 2016.