DST boosts space and ancillary research

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The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has announced five new research chairs at universities worth R240 million over 15 years to improving the country’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.

South Africa is in a race with Australia to host the 1.5 billion euro SKA radio telescope. The SKA will be a mega telescope of between 3000 and 5000 12 metre diameter dishes and will be about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest currently existing system.

Most of the cost will be borne by the United States and a consortium of European countries. Running costs and maintenance costs will amount to a further 150 million euro a year over the 30 to 50 year life span of the telescope and most of that will come from abroad and be spent in the host economy.

The new posts will be funded through the National Research Foundation, a DST agency, and will form part of the South African Research Chairs Initiative. Eighty-two such chairs have been awarded as pat of a scheme to boost SA’s overall research capacity.

The posts will be awarded for a period of 15 years, subject to review every five years, the DST says.

Work will be conducted at the universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Western Cape, Stellenbosch and Rhodes.

Research areas will include observational radio astronomy, radio astronomy instrumentation, digital signal processing, distributed data processing and RF broadband feeds, receivers and cryogenic packages.

The final decision regarding the location of the SKA is expected in 2012. Construction work is due to start in 2013, subject to successful funding proposals. It will be constructed in a phased manner, over seven years. The wikipedia notes operations will start in 2017, provided a significant portion of the array has been commissioned.

SA is currently building a seven-dish MeerKAT Precursor Array (MPA) radio telescope at a site 5km north of Klerefontein, the epicentre of the SA SKA bid. Klerefontein s itself some 78km outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape and falls inside an radio astronomical reserve established by law.

MPA construction started in July and was meant to be completed by year-end. To date, four of the dishes have been erected and two are operational.

The MPA, previously know as KAT-7 (Karoo Array Telescope, 7 dish), will be followed by the 80-dish, R860 million,MeerKAT (more than KAT).

SA has reportedly so far spent R258 million since 2003 on securing the project. The DST says R23 million has been allocated to university post-graduate research, while R155 million had been spent building roads to Klerefontein and the MPA site. Another R11.5 million was spent on building accommodation and facilities at Klerefontein, including a construction shed where BAE Systems personnel are building the composite materials dishes.

Meanwhile, Australia is building a AU$100 million Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) site near its own Carnarvon, a town in West Australia, consisting of 36 12m dishes employing advanced phased array feeds to give a wide field of view (30 square degrees).



Pic: Instalation of the first dish at the MPA site, July.