SKA project plans on schedule: Pandor


Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor says the Square Kilometre Array project is “firmly on track”. She was responding to a question from the opposition Democratic Alliance after the latter noticed a cut of over R500 million from Pandor’s department’s space science sub-programme.

Pandor’s DA shadow, Marian Shinn last week said news of the proposed cut was contained in the Adjusted Estimates of National Expenditure 2010 released by finance minister Pravin Gordhan last month. “A note in the ‘declared savings’ of Department of Science and Technology’s (DST) vote in the budget adjustments before Parliament states that “savings of R508.875 million due to the rescheduling of the Square Kilometre Array demonstrator (SKA) telescope have been declared”.

Pandor says the rescheduling of 2010/11 expenditure to 2012/13 and beyond “is a responsible planning response to ensure SKA benefits from evolving development and telescope redesign.”

The SKA is to be a 3000 to 5000-dish €1.5 billion (R14.3 billion today) radio telescope that will be built by an international scientific consortium either in South Africa or in Australia. Cabinet last year approved a R1.6 billion budget to win the right to host the instrument. This includes the construction of two demonstration instruments, the MeerKAT Precursor Array (MPA) and the MeerKAT proper.

The MPA, consisting of seven 12-metre 4.5mt dishes, is the prototype for a larger 80-dish MeerKAT that is scheduled to be completed by December 2012 and commissioned in 2013 at a cost of R860 million. Construction of the MPA began in July last year and was completed in January at a remote site some 5km north of Klerefontein, itself about 78km north of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape province.

Shinn added that the DST’s budget, as tabled in February, stated that R834.6 million had been spent on the SKA project to date and, that by the end of the Medium Term Economic Framework (ending March 2013), R1.1 billion would have been spent. An international panel will in 2012 decide where to build the SKA with construction slated to start the next year. The MP also asked whether the US government’s decision not to prioritise funding for SKA in this decade (2010-20) had any bearing on the virement. “While the United States has endorsed the … project, and is expected to contribute about 40% of the costs, only US$12 million has been allocated by the US government since 2007.

Pandor said this morning “SKA funds are not being cut. The initially expected utilisation of funds has been adjusted to reflect the actual utilisation of funds to date. As … Shinn has correctly indicated, the SKA is ‘large science’ project. By the very nature of such projects, the flow of funds needs to be monitored constantly and from time to time, the projected flow will be adjusted.”
“This is what has been done with the SKA and MeerKAT. The reasons for this are not based on any external considerations, nor do they suggest a set back in the progress of the South African bid. The adjustments are needed to ensure that the prototype of the SKA, the MeerKAT, is closely aligned to the design requirements of the full SKA,” Pandor added.
“As this is the largest radio astronomy project ever undertaken, modifications and adjustments are necessary while prototypes are being developed. The adjustments are based on our own experiences with the building of MeerKAT and from international best practice.
“It is envisaged that alignment with the full SKA will further strengthen the bid to host this global telescope. MeerKAT will be the SKA demonstrator telescope because South Africa had an opportunity to review the concept design with the assistance of the global astronomy community representatives.”