SA seals SKA Observatory deal

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

South Africa has signed the international treaty establishing the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) as an intergovernmental organisation tasked with building and operating the world's most powerful radio astronomy telescope.

Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, who signed the Convention Establishing the Square Kilometre Array Observatory on behalf of the South African government, is in Rome, Italy, today. 

The signing ceremony was presided over by Italy's Minister of Education, Marco Bussetti, and witnessed by ministers, ambassadors and other high-level representatives of countries participating in the SKA project.

Seven countries, South Africa, Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom, signed the treaty concluding four years of negotiations by government representatives and international lawyers, and kicking off the legislative process in each of the seven countries.

India and Sweden, who also took part in the multilateral negotiations, now have one year to sign the treaty. These nine countries will then form the founding members of the new intergovernmental organisation.

The treaty establishes the SKAO as only the second intergovernmental organisation dedicated to astronomy in the world, after the European Southern Observatory, and will ensure strong governance of the SKA project.

"South Africa's signature on the establishment of the SKAO as an intergovernmental legal entity to oversee the construction and operational phases of the SKA project is a crucial milestone and one which should be celebrated," Kubayi-Ngubane said.

"What makes this particularly unique is the fact that, for the first time, Africa, Asia, Australasia and Europe have committed at inter-governmental level to collaborate on a large-scale science project as equal partners. This represents the start of a new era for global science governance," the Minister said.

The treaty has been named the "Rome Convention" in recognition of Italy's role in the negotiation process. 

It will come into force once it has been ratified by the legislatures of five signatory countries, including all three SKA hosts (South Africa, Australia and the United Kingdom). 

"International cooperation in science plays a crucial role in fostering international friendship and solidarity and bolstering commitment to multilateralism, which will assist our world in addressing global challenges like poverty, inequality and climate change. 

“The signing of the convention puts science diplomacy into practice," Minister Kubayi-Ngubane said.

"South Africa has delivered on the MeerKAT, a pathfinder to the SKA, and our government looks forward to the next phase of the global initiative to build this extraordinary scientific instrument," the Minister added.

In 2012, following a nine-year bidding process, South Africa, together with eight African partner countries, and Australia were named as co-hosts of the SKA – one of the most ambitious international scientific projects of our time.

A collection of radio telescopes spread over long distances, the SKA will be built in South Africa and Australia, with later expansion planned for both countries as well other African states. –