South Africa has been awarded the lion’s share of the internationally-funded €1.5 billion (R15.6 billion) Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project. Government and the official opposition have welcomed the move.
The decision means the bulk – the Sunday Times reported two thirds – of the up to 3000 dishes, each 15 meters wide, will be built and installed at Klerefontein, near Carnarvon, in the Northern Cape. The remainder will be shared between Australia and New Zealand, the other contenders in the long-running race to host and gain from the mega-project.
South Africa, with its eight partner countries – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia – have been working on the bid to host the SKA since 2003, the Department of Science and Technology said Friday afternoon after the announcement in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, earlier in the day.
“After nine-years of work by the South African and Australian SKA site bid teams, the independent SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC), composed of world-renowned experts, carried out an objective technical and scientific assessment of the sites in South Africa and Australia, and identified by consensus Africa as the preferred site”, minister Naledi Pandor said in her reaction. “However, in order to be inclusive, the SKA Organisation has agreed to consider constructing one of the three SKA receiver components in Australia. Two will be constructed in Africa.
“A meeting of the members has decided to split the project which is an unexpected decision given the search for a single site. We had hoped the unambiguous recommendation of the SSAC would be accepted as the most sound scientific outcome. We accept the compromise in the interest of science and as acknowledgement of the sterling work done by our scientists and the excellent SKA project team.
“An important aspect of the site decision is the recognition of the MeerKAT telescope, being designed and built in the Northern Cape Karoo by South African scientists and engineers, as a critical step towards the implementation of the SKA. The MeerKAT will supplement the sensitive SKA Phase 1 dish array, providing the majority of the collection area of what will be the most sensitive radio telescope in the world. This recognition is substantive evidence of the great strides made by the local radio astronomy community since South Africa signalled its interest in the SKA, Pandor said.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) said it was disheartened but not dismayed at the news. Pandor’s shadow Junita Kloppers-Lourens said SA had “to settle for a draw.” She added: “A draw is no loss, though, and the majority of physical infrastructure in phase one will be built in South Africa, combined with the 64-dish MeerKAT project. And the SKA advisory committee did identify Southern Africa as the preferred site. All the dishes and the mid-frequency aperture arrays for phase two of the SKA will be built in Southern African.
“That we will receive the lion’s share of the biggest ever scientific project may serve to reverse the trajectory of dead aid that has characterised the African continent and signal a new era of cutting edge investment that incisively builds our knowledge economy,” Kloppers-Lourens added.
she also enthused that SA is currently in the process of commissioning the completed KAT-7 telescope, consisting of seven dishes that serve as an engineering prototype for the 64-dish MeerKAT project. “The KAT-7, even though it is only a precursor to the MeerKAT, is a remarkably useful instrument in its own right. It has already delivered images of Centaurus A, a galaxy 14-million light years away. The SKA will essentially be a continuation of these prototypes. That these projects were already in place boosted our bid in terms of cost efficiency and potential returns to scale. Certainly it provides the antidote to Australian Science Minister Chris Evans’ suggestion that ours was a sympathy ‘aid mind-set’ developmental bid. The evidence shows that today we drew, if not won, on merit.”
Reuters reports that the “SKA is more than just a scientific bauble for the winner.” It says global tech companies are already earmarking development funds linked to the project, which will rely on computing technology that does not even exist yet to process the flood of data it will collect. “Scientists estimate that the SKA will need processing power equivalent to several million of today’s fastest computers. IBM and Astron, the Netherlands institute for radio astronomy, announced in April a 33 million euro ($42 million, R240.4 million), five-year deal to develop extremely fast computer systems with low power requirements for the SKA project.”
“If you take the current global daily Internet traffic and multiply it by two, you are in the range of the data set that the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope will be collecting every day,” said IBM Researcher Ton Engbersen at the announcement of the deal.
Other companies that have signed partnership agreements with the project include Nokia-Siemens, BAE Systems PLC, Cisco Systems Inc and Selex Galileo, a UK unit of Italian group Finmeccanica SpA.
The engineering and computing challenges are significant, not least the provision of power to run the array and the supercomputers in such a remote location.
It is in overcoming those challenges that the leaders of the project argue could lead to untold spin-offs for industry. They point to Wi-Fi technology as one of the best known commercial applications to come from radio astronomy, for instance, Reuters says.