World’s most powerful telescope inspiring SA’s young techies

Almost 80 kilometres away from Carnarvon in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, where more than 5900 residents are jobless and good opportunities take a lifetime to resurface, the world’s most powerful radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), undergoes installation.

A report by Mail & Guardian suggests residents of the sleepy town expect that by hosting the SKA, it could inspire the village’s future techies. The instrument is expected to be complete in 2024.

The multi-billion rand radio telescope system project SKA also dubbed “discovery machine” will investigate the big bang, peek at the black holes, and possibly uncover new borders-like life beyond earth.

In May this year, South Africa’s ministers for science and technology Ms Naledi Pandor said an extensive bursary programme had seen hundreds of university students pique interest in space science and engineering as a career.

An estimated R55 million has been spent on developing the skills essential for SKA, with about 400 postdoctoral fellowships, PhD, MSc and undergraduate bursaries given to deserving candidates, according to the minister.

The project is currently recruiting staff from engineers to senior astronomers, while its funding spreads from research, artisanal training to offering bursaries to over 400 students.

Experts involved in the project see the excitement over the telescope as an opportunity to inspire a turn around.

Daphne Lekgwathi an SKA outreach leader said the briefing is in an effort to excite the young scientists in Carnarvon as well as show that they could take up bursaries from them and become professional astronomers or engineers.

Nadeem Oozer, operations and commissioning scientist, said the SKA will be the biggest project of the century and they need youngsters to continue the work they shall be starting and who will pass the passion for science and astronomy to another generation.
In May this year, Ms Pandor announced that the SKA would be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia.

The decision, to utilise the dual site solution, was reached earlier this year by members of the SKA Organisation.

The two countries have since undertaken the construction of precursor radio telescope dishes – the South African Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT) and the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP). The 2-phase project will see majority of South African-built dishes spread out in Phase 1. Phase 2 will focus mainly on Australian dishes.

The SKA will comprise nearly 3,000 dish-shaped antennae rolled out across thousands of square kilometers with the core of the telescope lying in the Northern Cape’s Karoo region, with outlying stations spread across South Africa, and in Botswana, Namibia, Madagascar Mozambique, Ghana, Zambia, Kenya and Mauritius.

Already an array of the KAT-7, seven radio telescopes, is online at the Northern Cape site and is summoning valuable imagery from distant corners of the universe. The KAT-7 is the MeerKAT precursor.

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