R120 million for African SKA development


The board of the African Renaissance Fund has approved a R120 million funding for the initial work to construct a network of radio telescopes in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) African partner countries.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) says the South African government has approved the allocation for the immediate construction of the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) Network.
“We are exhilarated that our continent will now receive astronomy research facilities to advance the emergence of the African knowledge economy,” says science and technology minister Naledi Pandor.

The African VLBI Network (AVN) will use radio telescopes at various locations in Africa, operating in unison to create high-resolution observations of astronomical objects, or accurately measure the distance between each radio telescope in the network.

The department explains that the resolution will be determined by the separation distance of the telescopes. The greater the separation distance, the greater the resolution and a network that uses the large North-South advantage, for example, in Africa, will make it a powerful VLBI.
“This radio telescope funding injection is supported by the development of human capital, from technician level to post-doctoral fellowships. The growth of Africa as a global astronomy hub is a shared vision of African countries to use the increasingly available broadband infrastructure for research and economic benefits,” says Pandor.

Tshepo Seekoe, DST chief director of Radio Astronomy Advances, says the AVN is expected to encourage co-location with research and monitoring facilities like global positioning system stations, automated climate change monitoring weather stations, and seismic activity warning systems.

The department also says mineral prospectors and other enterprises with socio-economic benefits will be able to use the roads, electricity and other infrastructure leading to the remote sites where the AVN telescopes will be constructed. This development is expected to create a more dynamic working environment for staff and students. The AVN will be used to study both astronomy and geodesy (continental drift).

The SKA is a radio telescope intended to probe the cosmos for insights into gravity, relativity, and other astronomical projects. It comprises a collection of phased array antennae which collectively form a single telescope with an effective collection surface of a square kilometre, able to provide enormous amounts of data. The antennae will be located in multiple countries; sites are chosen for clear, interference-free air and access to resources and skills.

South Africa bid for the rights to host the project against an Australian/New Zealand consortium, Argentina, and China. South Africa and Australia were each awarded part of the contract, with SA hosting the majority of the project, providing a boost for the South African scientific community.

The SKA Organisation is a co-operation of 20 member countries, headquartered in the UK.

The project’s budget is €1.5 billion, and is expected to commence construction in 2016, to yield results by 2019.

The African-European Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP) this week held a workshop on funding opportunities for African-European radio astronomy partnerships.

It was attended by members of the European parliament, officials of the European Commission and the European Investment Bank, as well as leading African and European radio astronomers and representatives of global industry.

The aim was to discuss how to further develop cooperation in radio astronomy between Africa and Europe. The workshop took place days after the SKA Organisation decided that SA, along with its eight SKA partner countries in Africa, will host the mid-frequency dish array and dense aperture array of the iconic SKA radio telescope.

The meeting ended with an elaboration of the next steps to establish a dedicated AERAP vehicle to enhance cooperation.
“Radio astronomy is recognised as one of the disciplines with the most exciting potential for building Africa’s science and technology capacities, and is also an area of great strategic importance for the future of research in Europe,” says AERAP.

The SKA will be about 50-100 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope. Its construction is expected to cost about €1.5 billion. It will help to answer fundamental questions in astronomy, physics and cosmology, including the nature of dark energy and dark matter.
“Astronomy is a unique instrument for development. It links cutting-edge technologies, frontier sciences and our deepest cultural layers. SA has been a role model for the International Astronomical Union in exploiting astronomy for capacity building,” says VP of the International Astronomical Union, George Miley.

The overall goals of AERAP will be to leverage cooperation in radio astronomy as an instrument to advance scientific discovery, to improve knowledge transfer and education, and to promote development and competitiveness in Africa and Europe. It is envisioned that AERAP will be formally established before the end of 2012.