SKA telescope means SA has “made it”

South Africa has been chosen as the host for an unprecedented technological masterpiece, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, which will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world.

President Zuma lauded South Africa’s achievement in winning the bid to build the instrument at the SKA site in the small town of Carnavon in the Karoo region on Tuesday, foreseeing a positive effect on motivation, employment and industry.

He commented during his tour of the site that the award of the project showed that South Africa as a country has “made it”.

With thousands of radio wave receptors to be located across the South African Karoo region, all interlinked and also connected to numerous receptors in Australia, the global project poses a technical challenge like none other faced to date. When received signals are combined, the telescope will have a strength equivalent to a dish of one square kilometre in area.

The telescope will allow scientists to explore how the first stars and galaxies formed in the period following the Big Bang and the consequent evolution of galaxies. Other key projects will involve the role of magnetism in the cosmos, and an investigation into the nature of gravity. Perhaps the most appealing project to the general public: the telescope will be used to further the search for life beyond Earth.

With an estimated construction cost of €1,500 million, the mammoth project is set to boost various South African industry sectors, as local engineers and manufacturers will be involved in construction of dishes and fish-eye lenses for the telescope, which is due to start in 2016 and scheduled for completion in 2024. Taking so long to complete, it will also provide opportunities for the next generation of budding technical and scientific experts.

One of the reasons for the selection of South Africa as the location for the SKA telescope is the MeerKAT telescope already under construction in the Karoo region. The MeerKAT array is set to be the most sensitive telescope in the Southern hemisphere. Once complete, it will form an integral part of the SKA system. The 64 dishes of the MeerKAT telescope will be complemented by another 190 dishes in the first phase of the SKA programme, with 2,000 dishes expected to be in place by the end of the project.

The MeerKAT telescope is being designed and constructed by South African engineers, headed up at the project’s head office in Cape Town. Associate Director of Science and Engineering at SKA South Africa Professor Justin Jonas speaks highly of the contribution that the MeerKAT telescope will make to the SKA project, and draws attention to the fact that South African designers, engineers and construction workers will be leading the world in completing the MeerKAT ahead of the SKA project.

“The decision [to build SKA in South Africa] recognises MeerKAT as a key instrument that will make up one quarter of SKA Phase 1 mid-frequency array, and the science planned for SKA Phase 1 is very similar to the MeerKAT science case – just much more ambitious,” Professor Jonas said.

“Our researchers and students who participate in the MeerKAT surveys have a huge advantage. They are well placed to enter SKA Phase 1. They have the opportunity to become science leaders in future SKA projects,” he added.

Speaking to gathered crowds, Zuma said: “I am absolutely excited to be here and see this area making such a significant contribution to global science… I’m also very happy to see young people speaking so confidently and passionately about the project, and already building their careers in science and technology.”

“Welcoming the SKA to Africa is a major step towards using science and technology to transform African economies and allowing African countries to participate fully in the global knowledge economy,” he added. “The SKA will propel our continent to the frontline of radio astronomy and it will open many doors for Africa in decades to come.”

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