Science ministers agree SKA telescope readiness plan

The nine African countries involved in the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA - the huge international astronomy research project - met in Pretoria, South Africa, last week and gave the green light for a readiness plan that will include developing a community of scientists to undertake radio astronomy studies across Africa.

The SKA, which will cost more than US$900 million to build in its first phase, will comprise thousands of large antennae spread across Africa and Oceania, with the head office of the SKA Organisation at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK.

The antennae, spread over 3,000 kilometres, will work together as one massive instrument, creating a radio telescope at least 50 times more powerful and 10,000 times faster than any other in existence, including the Hubble Space Telescope.

Led by South Africa, the SKA African partner countries are Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

The ministers also attended the inauguration of the first completed MeerKAT antenna, a precursor instrument for the SKA. The 64-dish MeerKAT telescope was constructed near the site proposed for the SKA telescope, close to the small town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape province of South Africa.

Targeted action

At the first ministerial meeting of the SKA African countries, the science ministers, deputy ministers and representatives said they hoped to have a readiness strategy and implementation plan finalised by March 2015.

Phase one of SKA's construction is scheduled to start in 2016.

Among other things the plan will include advancing radio astronomy programmes, building capacity in the African countries and meeting minimum regulatory and legal requirements for the successful construction and operation of the SKA and the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry network, or AVN.

The AVN is an array of radio telescopes throughout Africa and an extension of the existing global Very Long Baseline Interferometry network.

The ministers agreed to develop a pool of engineers, technicians and people with associated skills to support the design, construction, operation and maintenance of radio astronomy telescopes and related platforms. Other items agreed include:
  • • Building institutional capacity in universities, research institutions and government departments that promote the development of radio astronomy programmes and initiatives.
  • • Mobilising and leveraging both the funding and technical resources needed to realise Africa's vision for radio astronomy.
  • • Facilitating strategic partnerships and collaborative efforts, both regionally and globally.
Support for astronomy

The AVN is being built by rehabilitating existing, low cost but out-of-date dishes previously utilised for satellite telecommunication in Africa.

The conversion of the 32-metre dishes in Kuntunse, Ghana, is one of the projects currently under way. Seven trainees from the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute have been on a six-month training programme in South Africa since October 2013.

Mozambique, which will host some of the radio telescope dishes of the SKA, has already identified Maluana science site, 50 kilometres from the Mozambican capital of Maputo, where the dishes will be located.

As a result of the South African SKA initiative, undergraduate astronomy courses are being taught in five of the African partner countries, while Madagascar and Mauritius are also offering postgraduate studies in astronomy.

The African-European Radio Astronomy Platform launched in 2012 has been mobilising funding, technical and strategic partnerships for the realisation of mutual tangible benefits for Africa and Europe through radio astronomy cooperation, and has been actively supporting the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry network.

In 2012 South Africa's government announced plans to spend more than R200 million (US$19 million) on astronomy training over five years. Naledi Pandor, science and technology minister at the time, said the money would sponsor undergraduate and postgraduate students.