Will the Square Kilometre Array benefit the African continent…

SKA dishes courtesy of SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

…not just South Africa? It should.

South Africa is touted as the champion of African development, proverbially like “Moses” leading the dark continent into the light according to the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. Their successful World Cup bid was hailed as Africa’s world cup  is it the same for the  Square Kilometre Array  (SKA)?

 What  is the SKA?
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be a mega radio telescope, about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope. Radio telescopes detect electromagnetic radiation emitted by objects in space. The SKA will consist of a large collection of 4,000 telescopes spread across continents costing US$2.2 billion. The combined collecting area of all these antennae will add up to one square kilometre (= one million square metres).

The SKA is being designed to answer fundamental questions in physics, astronomy and cosmology to understand the origin and workings of the Universe better.

It’s a partnership
Although it is referred to as South Africa’s bid, the bid is in actual fact a partnership  with several countries including Ghana, Kenya, Botswana, Mauritius, Madagascar, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique. They have been working on the bid to host the SKA since 2003.  The SKA bid was endorsed in July 2010 by the African Union with the final proposal submitted to the SKA Siting Group on 15 September 2011.

The core of that part of the SKA telescope which is hosted by South Africa will be located near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, with antenna stations in Namibia, Botswana and the other African partner countries.

The gains
Manpower and brain gain
Since 2005, 70 out of the 398 SKA South African post-doc fellowships, PhDs and MScs and undergraduate bursaries were awarded to non-South Africans. To build the vast collection of telescopes, to assemble and run them will require man- and woman- power: scientists, engineers, IT specialists, these people will have to accommodated, feed and transported so there are both opportunities for blue and white collar employment.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2016 with the first science to get underway in 2020.

Growing fibre connectivity across Africa is making 20 large telecommunications antennas obsolete. These antennaes will be used to develop the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (VLBI, or AVN).

Paul Swart, Roufurd Julie and Obert Toruvanda with some of the hardware in the digital back-end laboratory at the Cape Town MeerKAT engineering office.

The SKA has already had an impact through the MeerKAT project. The MeerKAT array will be a world class ground breaking radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere until the SKA is completed in 2024. Close to 100 scientists and engineers are already working on this project pooled from the SKA African project partners. The MeerKAT has been the precursor to building the human capacity for the SKA.

Communication and E-everything!

Each dish will produce enough data to fill more than 5,000 160-GB iPods. This data will have to captured and transmitted widely. Increasing South Africa’s bandwidth to the world will have knock on effects for the rest of continent.

In an article in the Conversation, Tshilidzi Marwala Dean of Engineering at University of Johannesburg  writes

“Because of the expanded telecommunication infrastructure it will bring in its wake, the SKA will improve connectivity, allowing vital initiatives such as e-health, e-education and e-government.”

In the same article Tshilidzi Marwala talks about countering superstition “…the elimination of certain elements in our society, such as superstition, that have held us back.”  In my opinion, this is debatable as our Indigenous stories of the creation of the universe should not be contested but should sit comfortable side by side with scientific discoveries.  As Prof George Miley, Vice President of the International Astronomical Union and International Coordinator of the EU Universe Awareness project says

“Astronomy is a unique instrument for development. It links cutting edge technologies, frontier sciences and our deepest cultural layers.”

Pockets of funding
Bernie Fanaroff, director of South Africa’s SKA project in an interview with SciDev.Net said

“SKA will be the biggest research infrastructure in the world, that’s why it will be iconic. Iconic projects do things that incremental projects can’t do: they open up pockets of funding that might otherwise not be available.”

These pockets of funding according to Bernie Fanaroff will develop infrastructure, a legacy of skills, stimulate careers in science and technology, promote high level industry and improve university research and teaching.

Science communication
Jesse Shore, President of the Australian Science Communicators poses the question “What will SKA do for science communication and what should science communicators do for SKA?”. Stealing a few lines from the report  Engaging the world, Science Communication in Australia and New Zealand and applying it to this scenario…

“ Nothing else has the same ability to inspire and engage people as big science. Whether it’s a new synchrotron, a nuclear research reactor or a major telescope facility, people will seek to engage with what it means and to understand its implications for their lives and future wellbeing.”

The opportunities for science communication are immense from moving images, stories, art, music, formal and informal education, policy – hopefully this pushes the capacity for African public engagement with science. Incidentally there is vacancy for Chief Communication Officer at the SKA Organization Headquarters in the UK.

The winner is…..
The independent SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC) identified by consensus Africa as the preferred site but for the sake of  inclusivity, the SKA Organisation has agreed to consider constructing one of the three SKA receiver components in Australia. Two will be constructed in Africa.

The announcement of the winning bid coincided with the celebration of  Africa Day, 25th May. This should signal the importance of the announcement to the continent. In the words of Prof Justin Jonas, Associate Director for the SKA project

“For South Africa and our African partner countries this represents a new era, where Africa is seen as a science destination and takes its place as an equal peer in global science.”

What next?
The next two years scientists and engineers will work on a detailed design and pre-construction, following this will be the construction of SKA Phase 1 which makes up 10% of the total SKA instrument. Phase 1 will be ready for scientific research by 2020. This will coincide with commencement of the construction of Phase 2 2018-2023, with full operations expected by 2024.