Speech: Science and Technology minister Naledi Pandor on SKA


It’s my privilege to welcome you to this very important gathering. The main purpose of this brief meeting is to share with you up-to-date developments around the African SKA bid as well as encourage all African countries to actively support the bid.

South Africa and Australia are the finalists in the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope. This is an internationally supported project to build the most powerful and technologically advanced research facility in the field of radio astronomy. It will utilise cutting edge technology in electronics, computing, network connectivity, material sciences and engineering. If this facility is constructed in Africa, it will catapult the Continent to the forefront of science for years to come.

The South African SKA bid comprises nine African partner countries and associate countries. The nine partner countries – South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia – will co-host the SKA infrastructure. The partner countries participate in engineering and ICT initiatives, and the training of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Membership to become an SKA African Associate Country is open to all African countries.

The importance of the South African SKA bid has been acknowledged by the African Union (AU) as a vehicle for capacity building across the continent. At the 15th ordinary session of the assembly of Heads of State and Government in July 2010, in Kampala, Uganda the AU recognised the importance of the science, technology and innovation opportunities emanating from the SKA project.

In preparation for hosting of the SKA telescope, South Africa has introduced a comprehensive human capital development programme that supports students across the continent to study physics, astronomy, engineering and ICT. This programme has been extremely successful in attracting young African students into science and engineering and in producing a cohort of postgraduates. Since its inception in 2005, the programme has awarded 263 grants for undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Recipients of the awards have developed critical skills and expertise in technologies that will be instrumental in the pursuit of transforming Africa into a knowledge economy.

In addition to the HCD programme, the African SKA bid has stimulated interests in the field of astronomy across the continent. To mention but a few, the University of Botswana, the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar and the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique have recently introduced courses in astronomy and astrophysics. The SKA will provide opportunities for practical work in these countries and will enhance the uptake of science training programmes in various countries. By way of illustration, Mozambique had 75 students registered for courses in astronomy and astrophysics by the summer of 2010, with a growing demand for placements in these courses.

These developments have not gone unnoticed. During 2010, South Africa beat 20 other countries in a bid to host the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Office, which will, among many objectives, promote astronomical research and education in developing countries.

In order to secure the bid for the SKA, South Africa has begun with the construction of a demonstrator telescope called MeerKAT in the Karoo area of the Northern Cape province. The MeerKAT will consist of 64 dishes and will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Plans are afoot to finalise MeerKAT phase 1 consisting of seven dishes, which are already installed and undergoing various operational tests. This has been a rewarding experience and a clear indication that Africa is ready to host the SKA.

As a region, we are already internationally recognised in the area of astronomy. We are hosts to major astronomy facilities that include the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in the Northern Cape, South Africa, and the HESS gamma ray telescope in Namibia.

Economically, the SKA represents the largest science-based capital injection into the African economy by far. The estimated total investment is in the order of €1.5 billion or R15 billion. This investment will result in a number of immediate and long term socio-economic benefits accruing to the entire continent.

Immediate benefits are in the form of research and development opportunities during the design phase. Scientists from universities across the continent have an opportunity to participate in the design of SKA novel technologies and instrumentation.

The construction phase of the SKA will generate localised direct benefits in the form of jobs, procurement and sourcing of local materials in each of the partner countries. A combination of these benefits will contribute to improvement in the sub-Saharan GDP.

In addition to the immediate or short-term benefits, there are numerous long-term benefits accruable to the general community at large. Because of the scientific nature of the project, the biggest benefit will be the improvement of the skills base and access to top international research facilities and networks which will in turn boost our output of scientific publications. The SKA science provides opportunities for development of new algorithms and underlying mathematics for manipulating large data sets, new imaging technologies and techniques, new data compression algorithms for purposes, as well as new ICT skills beyond what is currently available. These are essential skills which may be applied in other productive sectors of the economy.

In the next ten months the International SKA Office will make the final pronouncement as to who, between Africa and Australia, will host the SKA.

As part of consolidating support and commitment to the SKA, I will be making whistle-stop visits to all SKA partner countries to discuss with my counterparts issues that require urgent intervention and to identify areas where we could provide assistance.

To all our SKA associate countries I urge you to take note of the opportunities provided by the SKA human capital development program. Officials from my department will provide you with further details in this regard.

In October this year the international space fraternity will be converging on Cape Town when South Africa hosts the 62nd International Astronautical Congress. This will be the first time that such a prestigious event will be hosted on the African continent and therefore provides a convenient platform to showcase our continent’s endeavours in space science and technology.

We encourage colleagues on the Continent to turn out in numbers in support of the bid and to actively participate in the Congress. The Congress itself will be preceded by an open session called “Africa Day”, where we would like to profile space initiatives on the continent, including the SKA, and to engage in a discussion for a roadmap towards an African Space Framework. We will therefore be inviting political principles on the continent to engage on this important debate.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for taking time this morning to attend the SKA briefing meeting. My department looks forward to engaging with you further on the SKA Project.

I thank you.

Issued by: Department of Science of Technology
18 March 2011