SA, China collaborate on astronomy


SA foresees increasing collaboration between Chinese and local astronomers and scientists in the face of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.

SA is bidding against Australia to host the mega telescope. A decision on the host site will be announced on 4 April, at the earliest. It will consist of about 3 000 dish-shaped antennae and other hybrid receiving technologies.

China has been a major player in the development of the SKA project and is a member of the board of directors of the SKA organisation. The SKA will be the largest radio telescope ever built and it will be constructed through a global collaboration of which China is part, says the SKA SA project.

A South African delegation led by deputy minister of science and technology Derek Hanekom is in Beijing to give an update on Africa’s bid for the telescope and on SA’s precursor radio telescope, the MeerKAT, to the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Astronomical Observatory of China and Chinese companies.

The South African government has already committed US$300 million to build the MeerKAT telescope, which will consist of 64 antennas. It will be the most sensitive telescope in the Southern Hemisphere at centimetre wavelength. It is expected to be fully assembled by 2013/14.
“Our mission is to further develop the already excellent relationship between the South African and Chinese governments, scientists and business, especially in light of the decision by the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA] to make radio astronomy one of their main focus areas in science and technology,” said Hanekom.

Bernie Fanaroff, director of SKA SA, said China is a key player in the SKA, which is a truly global project: “China is becoming a leader in radio astronomy and the FAST telescope being built by the National Astronomical Observatory of China will be a world-class and very important instrument. We look forward to China continuing to play a very important role in the SKA and to increasing collaboration between Chinese and South African astronomers and scientists in the other countries of the BRICS.”

As a member of the signatories, China has voting right on the SKA site selection decision. Apart from SA and Australia, other signatories include Italy, New Zealand, the UK, the Netherlands and China.
“Africa’s commitment to radio astronomy means there are rich opportunities for mutually-beneficial South African-Chinese science and industry partnerships, and these are not limited to the SKA project. This is not about lobbying. We have full confidence in the integrity and efficiency of the SKA Organisation’s site selection process and the independent scientific and technical evaluation process of course remains paramount. At the same time, we are eager to foster cooperation with strategic partners such as China,” said Hanekom.

At an estimated construction cost of US$2.23 billion, the SKA is poised to be by far the largest radio telescope in the world. The SKA will give astronomers insight into the formation and evolution of the first stars and galaxies after the Big Bang, the role of cosmic magnetism, the nature of gravity, and possibly even life beyond Earth.