SA goes all out to win SKA bid

Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Francis Hweshe

Cape Town - South Africa, with its African partners on board, is drumming up international support at various fora to win the bid to host the world's biggest radio telescope - the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The SKA bid has been compared to the country's bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. 

Major benefits for the country and the rest of the continent in areas of science and research have been projected in the event of a victory.

On the ground, preparations for the SKA project are in full swing in the Northern Cape's Karoo.

Briefing the Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology, representatives from the Department and Science and Technology said that apart from lobbying for local support to win the bid, they were garnering support from countries such as Ghana, Mozambique, Botswana and the US.

The department's Dr Val Munsami said that they had targeted key decision makers within the global SKA project.

These, he said, included SKA funding agencies group members and steering board members, even engaging the science community across the globe and targeting astronomy countries such as China, Japan and India.

He said that they had also roped in the private sector to demonstrate the opportunities for infrastructure development, high-tech industries and potential market growth.

They were working closely with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to ensure that SKA would be on the agenda when Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe leaves for the US next week to meet with Joe Biden, his counterpart there.

They also wanted the matter to be on the table during the Annual Bilateral Forum between the two countries next month, Munsami said, adding that an Inter Ministerial Committee had been formed and the respective ministers would be ambassadors for the SKA bid. 

SKA project associate director, Anita Loots, said that some of the physical requirements for the selection of the site included an "extremely radio quiet environment", and it should be at least 3 000 km in extent.

In turn, the committee wanted to know whether there was an even spread of black science students benefiting from bursaries that arose as a result of the project. It wanted to know if the gas prospects in the Karoo would have an impact on the bid and the project's tangible benefits for the poor.

Committee chair Dr Nqaba Ngcobo said that his committee would be going to the site and surrounding areas to verify if the local communities were really involved.

He also questioned the representatives on what they had done to lobby support for the upcoming Astrology and COP 17 conferences being hosted in the country.

Munsami said the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, would use the law to ensure that the SKA site was protected from gas prospectors in the Karoo. 

He said there were few black students pursuing studies in science and engineering who could be awarded bursaries, but hoped that in future that would change.