SA well placed to win SKA bid: Pandor


South Africa stands a good chance of beating Australia in the race to host the world’s most powerful radio telescope. An international panel is expected to announce the winner from the two shortlisted continents in 2012, enabling the victor to host the 1.5 billion euro Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, which will be 50 times more sensitive and 10 000 times faster than any other radio imaging telescope built.

“It is a huge endeavour we are undertaking,” said Science and Technology minister Naledi Pandor at Klerefontein, north of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, the location identified as the core site for the new telescope if the African bid succeeds. “We believe we have a good chance of being successful,” she said. “SKA represents an unprecedented opportunity for the development of scientific and technological skills and expertise in Africa.”

The SKA telescope would eventually consist of about 3000 antennas, half of them concentrated at the main site, with the rest distributed in Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Ghana, Mauritius, Madagascar, Kenya and Zambia. Pandor was at the site to view the now-completed seven-dish MeerKAT Precursor Array (MPA, previously the Karoo Array Telescope, KAT). Four dishes are already operational and scientists hope to start begin research by the end of this year.

Pandor said South Africa had allocated R234 million for the building the MPA and the larger 80-dish MeerKAT, itself the proof-of-concept for the SA SKA bid. The minister added international funding would pay for about 80% of the SKA. “The U.S has indicated that it might provide 40% of the total cost, while … France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom will together provide another 40%,” she said.

Project scientist Deborah Shepherd told Reuters “the SKA will look back into the beginnings of the universe, over 12 billion years ago, when galaxies started to form out of the Big Bang. We will be able to study the evolution of the universe,” The SKA telescope will also be able to scan for alien life in distant galaxies, shed light on so-called “dark energy” which is causing the universe to expand, and probe the first black holes and stars, she added. SKA is expected to be fully operational by 2022 with an expected lifespan of at least 50 years.

Shepherd said data from SKA could be used together with studies at the CERN super-collider project, where sub-atomic particles are being smashed to recreate conditions that gave rise to the universe 13.7 billion years ago.

The Engineering News reports the MPA’s main function is to serve as an engineering test bed for technologies and systems for MeerKAT. “The MPA is an engineering prototype,” explains SKA South Africa (SKA SA) associate director Anita Loots, herself an engineer. “Information from the MPA will inform the design of MeerKAT.” Thus, the MPA dishes are not identical – although of the same diameter (12m) – and made from composites, they are divided into two types, which are manufactured using different methods, the journal notes.

The one type of dish is produced using a metal mesh embedded within the composite material, while the other has an entirely composite structure. “The metal mesh method is cheaper and easier, but the size of the mesh limits the radio frequencies the dishes can receive,” she adds. “The scientists will have to decide if that is acceptable or not. And once that decision is taken, we will have to develop the ability to series produce dishes at a consistent high quality.”

The MeerKAT will be built in four phases, the first of which will be completed and recording the skies in 2013.

Pic: The MPA under contruction