An international group of scientists will decide in 2012 whether South Africa or Australia has won the right to host the world’s biggest and most powerful telescope. The proposed South African site stretches across 10km in the veld near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, with supplementary sites dotted around Africa as far north as Ghana. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope is an aperture-synthesis instrument. Signals from each of 3 000 radio telescopes (half of which will be located at Carnarvon) will be combined in such a way that the telescope’s diameter will in effect be the distance between the radio telescopes furthest apart from one another – in this case, a distance of some 3 000km!
The central computer for the system will have the power of one billion PCs. The speed of the computers will be so fast, it will defy belief. Dr Bernie Fanaroff, director South Africa SKA Project, says, ‘SKA is expected to collect more data in one week than humankind has collected in its entire history.’ Mankind will have its first clear pictures of what the universe looked like 13.7 billion years ago. Bidding for the R15-billion project has already created good spin-offs for astronomy in South Africa.
In an early move to support the bid, national government took the unusual step of legislating to ensure that the ‘quiet skies’ of the Karoo would stay that way by passing the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act in 2008. In the first phase of a broader plan to boost South African astronomy, a single dish (XDM) was built at Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) near Pretoria. By 2010, the seven dishes required for the second phase of the project (KAT-7) had been built in the Karoo.
MeerKAT is the final phase of the local project. This will entail 64 dishes being established, with the first to be in place by 2013 and the project to be complete by the end of 2016. The intention is that MeerKAT will develop technologies appropriate to the SKA but also able to operate independently should South Africa not win the bid. In early 2011, South Africa’s scientists gave notice that they are ready to host SKA. For the first time South Africa was able to complete a joint very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) observation without any international assistance.
Another step in the preparation of the field for SKA is in computing systems. South Africans have helped create the building block for the next generation of digital-processing systems. Known as Roach (reconfigurable open architecture computing hardware), the board is in use in 300 facilities internationally.
An announcement by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in October 2010 gave another boost to South Africa’s bid chances: the CSIR gave notice that a R100-million second network, with speeds of 10 gigabytes a second, would be installed at the astronomy site. Neotel will install the network in a partnership with Broadband Infraco. The existing astronomical facilities at Sutherland will also benefit from this faster network.
The South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) of the National Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) has put about R240-million into the creation of five university chairs in support of the SKA project. More than 300 university students have also received support for studies in science and engineering through the SKA Project and about 700 jobs have been created.
The Northern Cape’s first science centre was opened in Mothibistad in Kuruman in 2011. There are 30 such DST-sponsored centres in South Africa. They are intended to spark interest in science and, in the Northern Cape, in astronomy.
Astrological tourism has already created good economic spinoffs. Two Sutherland entrepreneurs rehabilitated the conservation land around the SALT facility, which has now become the site of guided tours and accommodation venues have flourished in recent times. To accompany the developments underway at Carnarvon, a satellite visitors’ centre will be built in the township of Schietfontein.