SOUTH AFRICA: Five new astronomy chairs

South Africa's Department of Science and Technology has awarded five universities chairs in astronomy to bolster the country's bid to host the world's most powerful telescope - the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) - and to boost research and science and engineering skills. The universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Rhodes, Witwatersrand and the Western Cape are searching for internationally recognised researchers to take up the positions.

The chairs were awarded for 15 years, together they are worth a total of R240 million (US$32 million), and they are subject to review every five years. They have been made available to universities as part of South Africa's commitment to strengthen cutting-edge science and engineering, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) announced this month.

This funding adds to R140 million which the DST has already committed to a bursary programme - the SKA Youth into Science and Engineering - for study in astronomy, physics and engineering fields related to the SKA and South Africa's Karoo path-finder telescope known as the MeerKAT Radio Telescope.

South Africa is pitted against Australia to host the powerful, EUR1.5 billion (US$2 billion) radio telescope. Announcement of the host country is expected in 2012.

Multiple spin-offs are anticipated from winning this bid. The capital investment of SKA is between EUR1.5 to two billion. There are 15 current potential funding countries, and three other countries have expressed interest.

If SKA is built in South Africa, several other sub-Saharan countries - Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Zambia - will host remote stations.

SKA is about 100 times more sensitive than other big telescopes, and will consist of approximately 3,000 dish-shaped antennae and other hybrid receiving technologies, with a core of about 2,000 antennas and outlying stations of 30 to 40 antennas each. The combined collecting area of all these antennas add up to one square kilometre, or one million square metres.

With the telescope maintenance costs for the host country to cover a 30 to 50-year period, the operating and maintenance costs of the radio telescope are expected to reach EUR150 million a year.

The outputs of the astronomy chairs will be in the form of problem-solving, techniques, and human capital trained to take the field forwards in South Africa and beyond, said Dr Peter Clayton, Rhodes University Deputy Vice-chancellor for Research and Development.

"There is currently only a small group in the world involved in the development of these techniques, and many of them are already collaboration partners of Rhodes University. With the help of this chair, Rhodes will be in a position to add significantly to the scarce resources (human and algorithmic) in this critical area," Clayton told University World News.

The Rhodes chair will be responsible for radio astronomy techniques and technology. It will focus on building the next generation of radio astronomy telescopes, with the ability to combine electronics, algorithms and computing for radio astronomy data processing.

At Stellenbosch University, the SKA chair will contribute to the science faculty's vision of improving science and technology in two ways, said Professor Petrie Meyer, head of the department of electrical and electronic engineering.

It will expand the ability of the department to provide research supervision to masters and doctoral students. The department envisages a significant growth in the number of PhDs produced in South Africa but this cannot be achieved with the present levels of academic staff, as the system is already under severe pressure. Meyer added that by enlarging the staff, the number of students could also grow.

"The chair will add an experienced researcher of international standing to the research pool in this field at the department, with the result the research output will also increase. While the electrical and electronic engineering department already hosts the largest high-frequency group in Africa, the extra chair will bring new skills and new research."

The other Universities - Cape Town, the Western Cape and Witwatersrand - will be responsible for extragalactic multi wavelength astronomy, radio astronomy, and astronomy and astrophysics respectively.