The National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund has granted the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project R27 million. This has emerged from the answer to a Parliamentary question tabled last month.
Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor in November said the SKA, which could cost an international consortium €1.5 billion (about R14.3 billion) to build, will earn its host – either South Africa or Australia – about €200 million a year for 20 to 30 years in expenses related to operations and maintenance.
Pandor added the project was “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 said the rescheduling of 2010/11 expenditure to 2012/13 and beyond was “a responsible planning response to ensure SKA benefits from evolving development and telescope redesign.”
The SKA is to be a 3000 to 5000-dish telescope that will be built by an international scientific consortium either in South Africa or in Australia. Cabinet in 2009 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 next year (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.
The SKA telescope will observe, capture and analyse radio signals from the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang. It will search for earth-like planets and potential for life elsewhere in the universe, test fundamental scientific theories such as the Einstein’s theory of gravity, and probe the dark nergy of the universe. South Africa’s bid to host the SKA was endorsed by Cabinet in 2003 and is in line with the Government’s Astronomy Geographic Advantage Programme (AGAP), which aims to establish a hub of world-class astronomy facilities in Southern Africa. South Africa was shortlisted for the facility – along with Australia – in 2006.