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It has been interesting to note reactions to the awarding of the SKA telescope to South Africa on twitter and across the web. From members of the public the most defining comment for me was by ‏@imogenwright on twitter – “On edge for the #SKA announcement. So exciting for South African science – the African renaissance is built with bricks like this.”[1]

Itwebafrica.com reported – “ ‘Bradley Frank, a student who has benefited from the funding opportunities, says: “Personally, I would never have been able to fund my PhD by myself, but through this, I was given a comprehensive funding package, which allowed me to learn skills from all over the world.’

Frank says the time for the continent to host a project such as SKA has arrived, as the number of African scientists is at its peak. “I don`t think that I`d be too off the mark if I said that we have more graduates in the pure sciences now then we`ve had within the last 20 years. It signifies a large and grand re-emergence of Africa, and is a major landmark in the story of the African renaissance.’ ” [2]

The South African Institute of Physics released a press statement – “We see the SKA as a game changer in the science and technology landscape. It is a coup for our science system of a similar magnitude to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The results at CERN have pointed to an increasingly important symbiosis between direct discovery of new physics by creation of exotic particles in the laboratory and the indirect discovery of new physics by observation of the astronomical footprints of those same particles. In this sense, the very recent science developments have enhanced the scientific significance of the SKA project. We get a bigger bang for our buck. The SKA therefore also deserves the title of “New Physics Discovery Machine”. The SKA project is one of the excellent examples that indicate the fruitful working relationships between scientists, scientific organizations and the Department of Science and Technology, which has played a key role in the scientific renaissance of South Africa.” [3]

This is a significant brick. One of the tenets of African Renaissance is to advance skills and retain African intellectuals on the continent by offering them opportunities. SKA has an education component in the form of bursaries and other training opportunities, and it builds science capacity on the continent. Part of the funding will be provided by the African Renaissance Fund.

What other World-leading Astronomy Projects are in Africa? According to the website Africa Europe Astronomy Partnerships (which is maintained by the South African Department of Science and Technology) [4]:

1. H.E.S.S.

H.E.S.S. (High Energy Stereoscopic System) is a system of Imaging Atmospheric Telescopes that investigates cosmic gamma rays in the 100 GeV to 100 TeV energy range. The instrument allows scientists to explore gamma-ray sources with intensities at a level of a few thousandth parts of the flux of the Crab nebula (the brightest steady source of gamma rays in the sky). H.E.S.S. is located in Namibia, near the Gamsberg mountain, about 100 km south-west of Windhoek, the Namibian capital, an area well known for its excellent optical quality. The first of the four telescopes of Phase I of the H.E.S.S. project went into operation in Summer 2002; all four were operational in December 2003, and were officially inaugurated on September 28, 2004. The H.E.S.S. research group subsequently received the European Union’s prestigious Descartes Prize for Science in Brussels on 7 March 2007. The European Union established the Descartes Prize in 2000 to highlight and recognise scientific and technological achievements based on collaboration between many countries.

2. S.A.L.T

The Southern African Large Telescope (S.A.L.T.) is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, with a hexagonal mirror array 11 metres across. The construction of SALT has been completed, funded by a consortium of international partners from South Africa, the United States, Germany, Poland, India, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. It is now in its commissioning phase. Astronomers from southern Africa and SALT partners in the UK, the USA, New Zealand, Poland, Germany and India use SALT to tackle fundamental questions about how the Universe works. The science programmes are many and varied. For example, SALT is being used to conduct spectroscopic follow up observations of Supernovae to measure their distance. Projects are also proposed to conduct spectroscopic follow up observations of faint X-ray sources discovered with the XMM-Newton and Chandra satellites to determine the nature of these objects. Closer to home, SALT is being used to study some of the smallest asteroids ever discovered.

3. MeerKAT

South Africa is building the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT), which is a precursor instrument for the SKA, but will in its own right be amongst the largest and most powerful radio telescopes in the world. MeerKAT is being constructed adjacent to the site proposed for the SKA near the small town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape Province. The greenfield radio astronomy site has been provided with electric grid power, roads, optical fibre connections to Cape Town, accommodation and workshops and is protected by purpose-built legislation, called the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act. The MeerKAT will develop and test technologies appropriate to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). These will include the use of composite, one-piece reflectors, single-pixel wide-band receivers, low-cost, high-reliability cryogenic systems, and reconfigurable digital processing systems.

The MeerKAT is already in great demand by the international astronomy community. Twenty-one international teams, including five hundred scientists, responded to a request for proposals for large observing surveys with the MeerKAT. An international Time Allocation Committee has recommended  two top priority programmes and eight others and these programmes have been awarded in all nearly five years of observing time. Some of the researchers are South Africans: others researchers are from India, the USA, the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, Italy, France, Canada and other countries.

The MeerKAT is being designed and built by the SKA South Africa team in Cape Town, collaborating with South African industry and universities and international collaborators. Key South African industry partners are EMSS, a Stellenbosch company which works  with the team on innovative receivers, radio feeds and cryogenics, Tellumat, which is working on the manufacturing of boards and receivers and MMS and BAE Land Systems, which have built the composite dishes, Eskom, the national electric power utility, Optic 1, which built the power and optical fibre cables to the site, Broadband InfraCo, which is connecting the site to Cape Town and the world, MESA Solutions, working on electromagnetic compatibility, as well as many construction and service companies.

South Africa universities which have been particularly active include the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Rhodes, Western Cape, Witwatersrand and KwaZulu Natal and the Durban University of Technology.  The major international collaborators are the University of California at Berkeley, and the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Illinois, Caltech, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (USA), ASTRON (Netherlands), TIFRA (India), INAF (Italy) and the DAO (Canada).

4. V.L.BI.

SKA South Africa and its partners in Africa are investigating the construction of the African Very Long Baseline Inteferometry Network, an array of radio telescopes throughout Africa as an extension of the existing global Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (VLBI). The proposal is to modify existing but redundant dishes previously utilised for satellite telecommunication.

SKA South Africa and its partners are looking at converting large (about 30 m in diameter) satellite telecommunications dishes found in many African countries, into radio telescopes. The dishes have been rendered obsolete by the construction of terrestrial and marine optical fibre networks throughout Africa.  Telecomm operators in two countries have already indicated that they are open to handing over the dishes. The idea is to link all these telescopes together, and to radio telescopes in South Africa, forming what has been described as the African VLBI Network. This, in turn, would be connected to radio telescopes and arrays in Europe and elsewhere in the world, including North and South America, Asia and Australia. The longer the baselines – i.e. the greater the array of linked telescopes – the greater the astronomical detail that can be discerned. It is for this reason that the baseline to Southern Africa is important and why European astronomers want to use the Southern African facility.

Thus, the Africa VLBI facility could significantly improve the science which can be done with the global VLBI network. The project would also stimulate astronomy in the participating countries and help to develop skills in electronics and information and communications technology.

5. SKA

Southern Africa, with a bid from 9 countries led by South Africa, is one of two candidate sites for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Expected to be operational by 2025, the SKA will be a revolutionary radio telescope that will allow scientists to address many of the fundamental, unanswered questions about the Universe we live in. The SKA will be located in the Southern Hemisphere and will be by far the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built. It will comprise more than 3,000 dish antennas, each about 15 m wide, and thousands of fish-eye low frequency antennas, They will be arranged in five spiral arms extending from a central core to at least 3,000 km. The SKA will be 50 times more sensitive than any existing radio telescope, providing continuous frequency coverage from 70 MHz to 10 GHz in the first phases of its construction, and reaching 30 Ghz in the final phase.  Astronomers and engineers from more than 70 institutes in 20 countries are working on the SKA project. Once in operation, it will be a truly global science facility, and its data will be distributed and processed in centers around the world.

To read further on Africa’s Scientific Renaissance in Astronomy and contributions to science education, read further on AstroAfricaEU website – http://www.astroafricaeu.com/africascience.php?id=1


1.  Imogen Wright Twitter Status – https://twitter.com/imogenwright/status/205923135684493313

2.  SKA Boosts SA Either way – http://www.itwebafrica.com/telecommunications/southern-africa/228389

3. South African Institute of Physics press statement of SKA site [pdf] – http://www.saip.org.za/images/stories/documents/SAIP_Press_Statement_on_SKA_Site.pdf

4. Africa’s Scientific Renaissance [World-leading Astronomy Projects in Africa] – http://www.astroafricaeu.com/africascience.php?id=1