Lottery fund granted Square Kilometre Array radio telescope R30 million; only R5 million received


The National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund has granted the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project R30 million over the last five years, but only R5 million has been received so far.

This has emerged from the answer to a Parliamentary question posed by Marian Shinn, Democratic Alliance Shadow Minister of Science and Technology.

The Department of Science and Technology responded, saying that a grand total of R30 million was allocated by the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF) between 2005 and 2009. R5 139 371 was allocated for the SKA project in 2005/2006; R13 483 820 in 2006/2007; R8 876 872 in 2007/2008; R1.5 million in 2008/2009 and R1 million in 2009/2010. Nothing was allocated in 2010/2011.

The Minister of Science and Technology said in the replay that her department did not apply to the NLDTF for a Square Kilometre Array grant (and has not applied for a grant since 2004), as the funds went through the National Research Foundation to the SKA project.

As of 22 February this year, only R5 million had been received. SKA Project Manager Bernie Fanaroff said this money had gone to the MeerKAT precursor array and was spent on the antennas and related infrastructure. He said that once the rest of the money became available, it would primarily be spent on the MeerKAT, but he was not sure when the Lottery Fund would transfer the remaining R25 million allocated to the SKA project.

Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor has said the SKA, which could cost an international consortium €1.5 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.

The SKA is to be a 3000-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 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 5 km 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 energy 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. A final decision on who will host the telescope is expected early next year.