SKA opens up galaxy of possibilities

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Johannesburg – Project Director of the South African Square Kilometre Array (SKA), Dr Bernie Fanaroff, says South Africans, particularly the youth, should take advantage of the world of possibilities that will be created through the SKA.

Addressing The New Age/SABC breakfast briefing on Tuesday, Fanaroff said if South Africa played its cards right, the SKA project would “bring lots of opportunities to the country”.

“The SKA, if used properly, will create opportunities for us,” he said of the project he described as “very exciting”.

The SKA Organisation announced last year that South Africa and Australia would share the hosting of the most advanced scientific project in the world.

Once completed, the SKA will be the world's biggest telescope. The telescope will be made up of many large antennas (and other types of radio wave receivers) that will be linked together via optic fibre cables.

Thousands of antennas, spread over 3 000 km, will work together as one gigantic, virtual instrument - creating a radio telescope at least 50 times more powerful, and 10 000 times faster than any other radio telescope currently in existence.

Radio astronomers will use the SKA to understand how stars and galaxies formed, and how they evolved over time; what the so-called "dark-matter" is that occupies 95% of the universe; how magnetic fields formed and evolved in the universe and how they influence astrophysical processes; to investigate the validity of Einstein's theory of relativity, and perhaps detect life elsewhere in the universe.

The SKA will also discover new aspects of the universe have not yet been predicted, and will generate more questions that need to be answered.

The SKA project will drive technology development in antennas, fibre networks, signal processing, and software and computing. Spin off innovations in these areas will benefit other systems that process large volumes of data.

The design, construction and operation of the SKA will impact skills development in all partner countries. This presents many career opportunities for the youth in South Africa to get involved the fields of maths, science, technology and other allied fields.

The SKA also carries benefits for industry. The International SKA Organisation Project Office recently issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the SKA pre-construction phase.

The RFP is an invitation for international consortia to bid for work packages to design the various components of the SKA such as antennas, receivers, signal processing systems, data transport and high performance computers.

Both South Africa and Australia have been working on precursors to the SKA -- the MeerKAT telescope and the six-dish SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), respectively.

The MeerKAT Array is currently taking shape in South Africa's Karoo region. It will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until the SKA is completed around 2024.  

According to the SKA Organisation, the two biggest components of the SKA will be built in Africa, while one will be built in Australia. About 70% of the facility will be built in Africa.

The SKA is set to attract scientists and engineers from various countries throughout the world to South Africa. It is also envisaged that the project will also improve the country's economy.

Fanaroff said the cost of building the SKA, which is expected to be in the region of R20 billions, will be shared among the partner countries.

By 2020, South Africa is expected to be playing a leading role in the world of astronomy.

Already, seven dishes have been built in the Karoo and more are expected to be built in the neighbouring countries.

Fanaroff said once the SKA has been completed, South Africa will be in a position to understand the universe better.

It is estimated that by 2016, there will be about 64 dishes completed and operational and by 2024, it is expected that there will be about 2 000 dishes. –