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US SKA Consortium votes to dissolve itself in light of decadal survey and budget realities June 15, 2011

Posted by admin in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Cosmology, Gravitation, and Relativity (CGR), Earth and Planetary Systems Sciences (EPSS), History, Policy and Education (HPE) , add a comment
At its meeting in Arlington, VA on June 7, the US Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Consortium voted to dissolve itself as of December 31, 2011.  The consortium consists of US universities and research institutes that are studying and prototyping technologies under development for the SKA

The decision follows from the 2010 astronomy decadal survey, which did not give the SKA a positive funding recommendation.  The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to follow that recommendation. As a result the United States will no longer be officially part of the international SKA project.

But this does not mean that the Americans are not participating in the overall project, in fact the US radioastronomers still remain supportive of it.  There are Americans on the engineering advisory committee.  Also the deputy director of the astronomy division at NSF, Vernon Pankonin, chairs a committee that will be making a site selection recommendation, though officials are quick to point out that his participation is not in his official capacity, and in no way implies the participation of the agency.  Pankonin's committee is set to recommend a site for the SKA, either Australia/New Zeland or Africa, in February 2012. 

The National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) has been supportive of the African bid, including participation in the recent workshop on the SKA and human capacity development. Later this year, NSBP plans to launch the US-Africa Astronomy and Space Sciences Institute.

NSBP member, Eric Wilcots, also a member of the US SKA Consortium, feels that the dissolution decision will have little immediate impact on the international project.  "The large part of the US financial involvement was only to materialize in the next decade.  India, China and Canada have joined the effort since the time of the original planning.  Whether or not these countries will participate financially in this decade to the extent that was envisioned for the US is unknown at this point."

Charles McGruder, also an NSBP and US SKA Consortium member, agrees.  "The SKA is conceived to come together in phases.  Phase 1 will likely proceed in this decade even if the US is not an official participant.  Phase 1 includes epoch of reionization and NANOGRAF (pulsar timing) experiments, which did get postive funding recommendations in the decadal survey."
"Individual American astronomers will undoubtedly stay involved with the SKA through these research projects," adds NRAO's Ken Kellermann, a past chair of the International SKA Science and Engineering Committee.

This bodes well for the South African effort, Wilcots points out.  The South Africa MeerKAT is much better suited for pulsar timing studies than the Australian ASKAP.   The PAPER experiment was recently deployed in South Africa eventhough it was originally planned to be located in Australia.  Also a US team intending to work with the Murchison Widefield Array, which is under construction in Australia, was recently informed by NSF of the agency's declination of their funding proposal.

There are efforts to find other sources of funding, public and private, to support the US involvement in the SKA project.  There are intersections between US policy towards the SKA, broader American foreign policy interests, and interest in the diversity of the global scientific workforce.  Some Members of Congress have become interested in the SKA as a mechanism for increased trade with Africa.  Whether or not this leads to an administrative policy directive or congressionally mandated spending remains to be seen.  

Southern Africa’s SKA Bid: A Worthwhile Investment June 14, 2011

Posted by admin in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), History, Policy and Education (HPE), Technology Transfer, Business Development and Entrepreneurism (TBE) , add a comment

By Congressman Bobby Rush

Southern Africa is quickly establishing itself as a hub for astronomy, scientific expertise and in doing so, is creating an unrivalled opportunity for the development of skills and expertise that will allow Africa and its people to be significant contributors to the global knowledge economy.

In 2012, a consortium of major international science funding agencies will select a location to house the world’s most powerful radio telescope, The Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA promises to revolutionize science by answering some of the most fundamental questions that remain about the origin, nature and evolution of the universe. With about 3 000 receptors linked together and a total collecting area of one square kilometre, the SKA will have 50 times the sensitivity and 10,000 times the survey speed of the best current-day radio telescopes. The SKA will enable scientists to gain insight into the origins of the universe and provide answers to fundamental questions in astronomy and physics.

Currently, two locations are under consideration: Africa, under the leadership of South Africa, and Australia/New Zealand, under the leadership of Australia. South Africa’s SKA bid proposes that the core of the telescope be located in the Northern Cape Province, with additional antenna stations in Namibia, Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar, Mauritius, Ghana and Zambia.

South Africa has already demonstrated its excellent science and engineering skills by designing and starting to build the MeerKAT telescope, an SKA precursor telescope. Five years before MeerKAT becomes operational, more than 43,000 hours of observing time have already been allocated to radio astronomers from Africa and around the world, who have applied for time to do research with this unique and world-leading instrument. US astronomers are leading some of these research teams.

There is already active collaboration between the South Africans and UC Berkeley, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Caltech on the PAPER and CBASS telescopes respectively, which are currently hosted on the South African radio astronomy reserve. Collaboration is also taking place between these US research institutions and the MeerKAT team on the development of technologies for the MeerKAT and US telescopes.

The SKA in Southern Africa represents an unrivalled opportunity to transform Africa through science and technology by driving the world’s best and brightest to the region, and providing the continent’s youth with a world-class incentive to study science and provide the world answers to the planet’s oldest questions.

The SKA in Southern Africa will create a critical mass of young people in Africa with world-class expertise in technologies that will be paramount in the global economy in the coming years. New technologies, scientific discoveries and infrastructure development taking place in Africa will contribute to the creation of entirely new industries and spur development in many fields of human endeavor, while transforming Africa as a major hub for science in the world and creating a new continent of opportunity for American business to cultivate and develop partnerships throughout Africa.

The construction of major science infrastructure in Southern Africa, such as the $2 billion SKA project, will also represents an important opportunity for U.S. business to cultivate and develop partnerships in the region that can lead to new technologies, new industries and economic development both here in the USA and throughout Africa.

The SKA represents a unique opportunity to accelerate the development of skills and expertise that will allow Africa and its people to be significant contributors to the global knowledge economy. We should support southern Africa in its quest to become contributors to global science and equal partners in the knowledge economy.

Bobby Rush is the U.S. Representative for Illinois’s 1st congressional district, serving since 1993. He is a member of the Democratic Party. A long-time advocate of increased trade with Africa, he has introduced H.R. 656, the African Investment and Diaspora Act, to advance the mutual interests of the United States and Africa with respect to the promotion of trade and investment and the advancement of socioeconomic development and opportunity.