UK minister visits SKA site


UK minister of state for universities and science David Willetts will visit the site of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in the Karoo today, where the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope is being built.

Willetts will be accompanied by senior government officials from the UK and SA, as well as SKA SA project staff.

The UK is a major player in the global SKA project, and is host to the head office of the SKA organisation, located at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester. The UK is planning to invest £19 million (R305 million) in the design phase of the project.

According to the Department of Science and Technology (DST), SA and the UK are already collaborating extensively in the field of radio astronomy, with 25 research organisations and 88 scientists from the UK directly involved in the large survey teams that will use the MeerKAT telescope for research during its first five years of operation. This includes 16 scientists from Oxford University and 11 from Manchester University.

Professor Philip Diamond, DG of the SKA organisation, says Willetts’ visit shows support and commitment from the UK government for the global SKA project and is something the organisation appreciates and values immensely.

During his visit to SA’s SKA site, Willetts will have the opportunity to view the progress taking place and the developments of the infrastructure being installed for the MeerKAT, including the KAT-7 pathfinder telescope and the roads, specialised buildings and sheds where the antennas for MeerKAT will be manufactured and integrated. He will also be able to observe the pouring of concrete for the foundations of the 64 MeerKAT antennas.

Science and technology minister Derek Hanekom says he is positive Willetts will be “very impressed” with the progress made on the SKA project. “We are pleased to have minister Willetts in the country this week for the SA-UK Bilateral Forum. As ministers responsible for the promotion of research and science in our respective countries, we will use the opportunity to further reflect and explore areas of collaboration,” says Hanekom.

Maiden landing

Willetts will be a passenger on the first aircraft to land on the new runway at the Karoo site. The completion of the landing strip comes just a month after the first concrete foundation was poured for the MeerKAT antenna.
“We are delighted that minister Willetts’ visit coincides with the maiden landing on our all-weather landing strip, providing the opportunity for us to demonstrate the delivery of infrastructure for MeerKAT and the SKA,” says professor Justin Jonas, associate director for science and engineering at SKA SA.
“The new landing strip will make it easier, quicker and safer for our engineers and scientists, who frequently visit the remote radio astronomy site in the Karoo,” says Jonas. “The site is located about 700 km from Cape Town, where our science, engineering and commissioning teams are based, and about 1 000km from Johannesburg, where our infrastructure engineering team is based.”

The landing strip, which is 1 300 m long and 18 m wide, can accommodate aircraft seating up to 13 passengers and includes an apron to accommodate up to two aircraft at any given time. The position of the landing strip was carefully chosen to avoid interference with the configuration and operations of the MeerKAT, and in the future, the SKA, and to fit in with the local topography and wind conditions, says Jonas.

The SKA is an international project to build a mega telescope that will be 50 times more sensitive and produce 10 000 times the survey speed of the best current-day telescopes. The telescope array will comprise about 3 000 dish-shaped antennas and other hybrid receiving technologies, with a core of about 2 000 antennas and outlying stations of 30 to 40 antennas each, spiralling out of the core.

MeerKAT is the precursor to the SKA and is set to be incorporated into the SKA phase one when it comes online in 2016.

The SKA organisation recently agreed on a €650 million capital expenditure cap for the first phase of the project, intended to give certainty to both funders and designers.

Square Kilometre Array

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.