SARAO Publishes Local Impact Report on HERA Radio Telescope

The Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array in the Northern Cape. Image credit: SARAO

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) has undertaken a local impact study of South Africa’s hosting of the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA). The HERA telescope is an array of 350 antennas, next to the MeerKAT radio telescope. As a result, they share the site that hosts the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in the Northern Cape province.

HERA is a US-led project that forms part of a large international collaboration. The collaboration has representatives from institutions across Europe, South Africa, the UK and the US. HERA aims to observe how the first structures formed in the very early stages of the Universe, as the first stars and galaxies lit up space. Consequently, construction began in 2015, with the full array reaching completion in 2021. SARAO managed the construction of the infrastructure in close collaboration with US institutions. Currently, the instrument is undergoing commissioning and validation of its data.

The impact study seeks to understand the direct investment and benefits of co-hosted radio astronomy infrastructure to the local economy in South Africa, at the national and provincial levels. More broadly, the impact study provides one example of the direct benefits of the country’s hosting of smaller telescopes, instruments and experiments on local astronomy sites.

The report on the local impact study focuses on three main areas of assessment: the economic benefits of hosting HERA in South Africa; a detailed assessment of the country’s investment in Human Capacity Development (HCD); and a socio-economic impact assessment of HERA focusing on local employment created through the hosting of the instrument in the Northern Cape. The findings from the HERA impact study indicate that South Africa received substantial direct foreign investment for the construction of the infrastructure. Most of the investment towards infrastructure occurred in the Northern Cape, with materials sourced from local suppliers during the construction of the infrastructure. At a regional level, Carnarvon benefitted most from the investment when compared to other towns in the province. The findings demonstrate how international investment in astronomy research infrastructure can stimulate economic development to benefit the region closest to the infrastructure.

“With a creative approach and some careful considerations, the smaller, less technically stringent projects can be successfully executed (parts manufactured and supplied, labour sourced and managed) all using the resources available in the Northern Cape,” adds Ziyaad Halday, SARAO Project Manager for HERA. He further adds: “This strategy facilitates employment and spending in sectors that are not the province’s main financial drivers, such as mining and agriculture.”

South Africa, through SARAO, has contributed significantly to the HERA collaboration by providing the human resources required for managing the project locally, and employing the workers needed for building, operating, and maintaining the infrastructure. Over the course of seven years, the construction of HERA on the telescope site has created employment for 24 individuals. SARAO recruited these individuals mostly from Carnarvon. The co-hosting of astronomy infrastructure such as HERA can have additional benefits for local communities through employment opportunities that arise from the construction of the instrument to the maintenance needed following the construction phase.

“South Africa has become a destination of choice for the hosting of international astronomy infrastructure. This includes smaller astronomy telescopes, instruments and experiments in astronomy that can be easily plugged into the existing infrastructure on operational sites,” says Dr Bonita de Swardt, SARAO Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for HCD and author of the report. She adds: “HERA represents only one of these co-hosted instruments for an international collaboration of scientists. The impact study shows how South Africa can benefit from smaller scale, co-hosted instrumentation through business development to the employment it can create for people living in some of the most impoverished and rural geographical areas in the country.”

On a national level, the impact study found that there is growing participation of South African researchers in the HERA collaboration. This was mainly a result of continued financial support towards masters and doctoral scholarships, in conjunction with the award of postdoctoral research fellowships supported by SARAO’s HCD Programme and collaborating universities. These initiatives received support throughout the construction of HERA, which has led to increased participation of researchers based at local universities in the collaboration, ensuring South Africa’s representation in world-class research conducted with this instrument.

You can view the full report here.


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