South Africa - a preferred site for the Square Kilometre Array
The long and eagerly awaited announcement regarding the site for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope was made on Friday, 26 May 2012 following a meeting of the members of the SKA Organisation at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands.
After nine-years of work by the South African and Australian SKA site bid teams, the independent SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC), composed of world-renowned experts, carried out an objective of technical and scientific assessment of the sites in South Africa and Australia, and identified by consensus Africa as the preferred site.
However, in order to be inclusive, the SKA Organisation has agreed to consider constructing one of the three SKA receiver components in Australia. Two will be constructed in Africa. A meeting of the members has decided to split the project which was an unexpected decision given the search for a single site.
The Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor expressed her deepest excitement soon after the announcement was made. ‘‘We had hoped the unambiguous recommendation of the SSAC would be accepted as the most sound scientific outcome. We accept the compromise in the interest of science and as acknowledgement of the sterling work done by our scientists and the excellent SKA project team” she said.
An important aspect of the site decision is the recognition of the MeerKAT telescope, being designed and built in the Northern Cape Karoo by South African scientists and engineers, as a critical step towards the implementation of the SKA. The MeerKAT will supplement the sensitive SKA Phase 1 dish array, providing a majority of the collection area of what will be the most sensitive radio telescope in the world. This recognition is substantive evidence of the great strides made by the local radio astronomy community since South Africa signalled its interest in the SKA.
South Africa, with its eight partner countries – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia – have been working on the bid to host the SKA since 2003. The final proposal was submitted to the SKA Siting Group on 15 September 2011.
On the basis of its analysis of technical, scientific and other factors, the SSAC unambiguously and by consensus found in favour of the African proposal, as well as the African implementation plans and cost factors. Consequently, the SSAC recommended South Africa and its partner countries as the preferred site for the SKA.
The decision by the SKA Organisation to build the majority of the SKA in Africa coincides with our celebrations for Africa Day today. It also fits in well with the African agenda as we celebrate the 49th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity and the 10th anniversary of the African Union. The SKA has been endorsed by the African Union, both in 2010 and earlier this year.
The SKA project is a global scientific enterprise to build one of the largest scientific instruments ever envisaged. It is being designed to answer fundamental questions in physics, astronomy and cosmology in order for us to understand the origin and workings of the Universe better, and to reveal new and unexpected phenomena that will enthral and challenge us. Since 2005, we have awarded nearly 400 grants and bursaries to postdoctoral fellows and PhD and MSc students and undergraduate students.
The Minister acknowledged the unwavering support given by the key role players in driving this initiative, the Cabinet, especially the Interministerial Committee on the SKA, the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, scientists and astronomers, the Presidency, officials at the Department of Science and Technology, in particular the Director-General, Dr Phil Mjwara, and Dr Bernie Fanaroff and the entire team at the Square Kilometre Array Project Office.
For more information visit www.dst.gov.za