SOUTH AFRICA: Campaign to support SKA bid

Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor (pictured) this week launched a national campaign to drum up support for the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array in South Africa. The campaign, aimed at stimulating interest and showcasing Africa as an emerging global astronomy hub, comes in the months leading up to the international announcement of the bid winner in the first half of 2012.

South Africa, with eight other African countries (Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia) as partners, and Australia (with New Zealand), have been shortlisted as possible sites to build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The budget for building the SKA is EUR1.5 billion (US$2 billion), and it will cost about EUR150 million annually to operate it, according to the Guardian. The SKA will be built and funded by a UK-based consortium consisting of 16 countries.

Expected to be operational by 2021, the SKA is considered a revolutionary radio telescope - the most powerful ever - which will allow scientists to look back to before the first stars and galaxies formed and, by making pictures from radio waves, help scientists address many unanswered questions about our universe.

The campaign in support of South Africa's SKA bid is modelled around astronomy and the moon as themes.

The department of science and technology (DST) is encouraging South Africans to join in its SKA bid by placing messages of support on the SKA website.

The DST has also partnered with the South African state theatre to rally a cross-section of communities countrywide in support of the bid.

The theatre will host Full Moon Fever campaigns on Fridays, Saturdays or Mondays closest to the full moon, comprising exhibitions, a laser show, a night sky view and a play, "African Stars", that looks at the origins of astronomy in Africa.

And Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria will highlight the various fields of science and technology available to students, as well as possible career paths, with special focus on astronomy and radio astronomy.

South Africa has done its fair share of cultivating an environment for radio and optical astronomy growth by establishing the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act of 2007, which protects astronomy reserves from detrimental effect.

The drive has also seen the Karoo's Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) attracting the attention of the world's scientists and researchers.

Pandor said at the campaign launch that the establishment of the South African National Space Agency had added impetus to growing the satellite industry, a wide range of innovations in space sciences, earth observation, communications, navigation and engineering.

Other exciting astronomy developments in Southern Africa include the gamma-ray telescope - the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) - in Namibia, and the establishment of the International Astronomical Union's South Africa-based Office for Astronomy Development under the directorship of Kevin Govender.

And South Africa is building the Karoo Array Telescope - the MeerKAT - a seven-dish array telescope in the Northern Cape, as part of the African commitment to the SKA project.

The MeerKAT, scheduled for completion in 2016, will be a world-class radio telescope in its own right. According to the SKA website, the MeerKAT is "the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until the SKA is completed".

The MeerKAT serves as a demonstration telescope of technologies being considered for the SKA. The first phase of MeerKAT is now complete with operations beginning in early 2012.

The African Union has acknowledged the SKA project as a vehicle for capacity building across the continent. The AU 15th ordinary session of the assembly of heads of state and government in July 2010 formally recognised the importance of the science, technology and innovation to come out of the SKA project.

This month the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with South Africa held a meeting with Pandor under the theme, "Promoting European African Scientific Partnerships: The case of radio astronomy".

Dr Bernie Fanaroff, director of South Africa's SKA project, explained the importance of African partnership with the European Union. He said together they can do much more and create a focus for science and technology in European development policy.

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