SKA Project Spurs Science And International Attention In South Africa

A radio image of the centre of the Milky Way with a portion of the MeerKAT telescope array in the foreground. The plane of the galaxy is marked by a series of bright features, exploded stars and regions where new stars are being born, and runs diagonally across the image from lower right to top centre. The black hole at the centre of the Milky Way is hidden in the brightest of these extended regions. The radio bubbles extend from between the two nearest antennas to the upper right corner. Many magnetised filaments can be seen running parallel to the bubbles. In this composite view, the sky to the left of the second nearest antenna is the night sky visible to the unaided eye, and the radio image to the right has been enlarged to highlight its fine features.

In early 2000, the South African Department of Science and Technology with the support of its government, hosted a bid to co-locate of the Square Kilometer Array(SKA) with Australia and was recommended alongside eight other African countries for the project which will produce science that changes our understanding of the universe.

The project which is already underway has acted as a catalyst to several other scientific and space projects in South Africa, which include the building of a “prefaced telescope”, MeerKAT, a smaller version of the SKA, by indigenous engineers with recommendations from scientists, to develop the innovative ideas and technology needed to the major project. The telescope built by indigenous engineers with recommendations from scientists.

Speaking in an interview with CNBC Africa at the World Economic Forum, Dr Bernie Fanaroff, former Director of SKA South Africa, said the engineers built and launched 64 out  of 2000 required by the SKA project in July, and its success has attracted the attention of the international community: the German institute, Mas-Planck, and the Chinese government which are going to build a total of 20 dishes between them.

“Currently, as we speak, the Germans have already built a whole new set of radio receivers as well as the ones we have built”, he hinted.

On reasons for embarking on the project, Dr Fanaroff said, “We’re facing an increasingly digital world; we cannot allow ourselves to be isolated. We’re already marginalised in the global economy, at least, we have the know-how and expertise; we can go further on that. This is a trillion or multi-trillion industry economy, and we’ve got to play our role. Our president, in his state of the nation address last year said the Square Kilometre, because it’s using the most innovative and up-to-date digital technologies, allows us to bring young people into science and engineering, and give them the expertise and skills in these critical technologies.”

As an incentive to release a pipeline of new engineers and skills set for South Africa and the rest of the continent, he said, “We have done 1200 bursaries since the project started in 2005, which has given opportunities to many engineers in South Africa and partner African countries to further their knowledge of space development.”

He also said the project has trained people in radio astronomy and will in future guarantee Africa a status in astronomy.

Also a team of South African engineers in collaboration with British and American have built a telescope which seeks to determine how the universe started 14000 billion years ago.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a radio telescope. The idea conceived in the 1990s, and further developed and designed by the late-2010s. When built, the SKA would have a total collecting area of approximately one square kilometre sometime in the 2020s and would operate over a wide range of frequencies. Its size would make it 50 times more receptive than any other radio instrument. It would require very high-performance central computing engines and long-haul links with a capacity greater than the global internet traffic as of 2013. First construction contracts are scheduled to begin in 2020.


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