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Why does Africa need the Square Kilometre Array? August 16, 2011

Posted by admin in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Cosmology, Gravitation, and Relativity (CGR), History, Policy and Education (HPE), Technology Transfer, Business Development and Entrepreneurism (TBE) , trackback Bookmark and Share

2009 Address by Dr Adrian Tiplady, Manager, Site Characterization, SKA Africa Project Office

Honourable Minister, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman

Why does Africa need the Square Kilometre Array? It is a question often posed by a public that is cognisant of the many high priorities that South Africa, and Africa as a whole, faces. We are currently engaged in an international race, competing to host a multi‐billion dollar, cutting edge astronomical facility that, in my view, may very well be mankind’s last great astronomical adventure still bound on earth. Do we, as South Africans, have the skills and expertise to compete within the world’s scientific community, to produce scientists and engineers of the highest calibre that will compete in the global knowledge economy? (answer at the end)

Today, during the International Year of Astronomy, the world faces economic recession and a financial crisis like never before. Uncertainties in food, water and energy supply loom, whilst climate change has become an ever present maxim in the implementation of global policies. Africa suffers from the unrelenting scourge of preventable diseases such as Aids and malaria. Why, then, has South Africa, and Africa, announced to the international community that “we have the desire to become the international hub for astronomy”?

In the US, President Barak Obama has committed to significantly increasing investment into science, as one of the most important parts of stimulating the economy. In his address to the US National Academy of Science, President Obama said:

“At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more important for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than ever before”.

He went on to say:

“The pursuit of discovery half a century ago fueled our prosperity … in the half century that followed. The commitment I am making today will fuel our success for another fifty years. That’s how we will ensure that our children and their children will look back on this generation’s work as that which defined the progress and delivered the prosperity of the 21st century. …. The fact is that an investigation into a particular physical, chemical or biological process may not pay off for a year or two, or a decade, or not at all. But when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared……..And that’s why …… the public sector must invest in this kind of research – because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society. ….. It was basic research in … the photoelectric effect that would one day lead to solar panels. It was basic research in physics that would eventually produce the CAT scan. The calculations of today’s GPS satellites are based on the equations that Einstein put on paper more than a century ago”.

Even with the wealth disparity between the USA and South Africa, science and technology on the African continent is still seen as key to our ability to solve the problems of development that will determine the future of Africa and South Africa. Investment in mega‐science facilities has never been as important as it is today, where the brain drain, ill equipped school leavers and the lack of funding for higher education facilities to pursue areas of basic research have a directly detrimental effect on our ability to participate in the global knowledge economy, where we become innovators as opposed to consumers of technology.. And to retain these people, to stem the flow of skilled people leaving these shores, we need to provide flagship projects, such as those in astronomy that places cutting edge development in a variety of scientific and engineering disciplines at its core competency.

In 2003, the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation decided to enter into a race with four competing countries to host the world’s largest radio telescope. The Square Kilometre Array, as it is known, began as an international project in 1991, and currently involves 55 institutions across 19 countries. At a capital cost of more than $2 billion USD, the international consortium aims to have the SKA up and running by 2022, spending a further $150 million USD per year for the next 50 years in running costs. Much of this expenditure will be spent in the host country. The instrument is projected to be between 50 and 100 times more powerful than any radio astronomy facility ever built, an array of some 4,500 radio telescopes distributed over an area 3,000 km in extent. Combining the signals from each of these telescopes using a supercomputer 100 times more powerful than anything that exists today will create a virtual telescope, spanning 3000km in diameter, with a total collecting area of 1 square kilometre ‐ the equivalent of over 1,000,000 DSTV satellite dishes. This will result in an instrument with unparalleled sensitivity and resolution.

In this International Year of Astronomy, we believe we understand just 4% of all the matter and energy in the universe. The world’s astronomical community are striving to answer some of the great fundamental questions that face the world’s scientific community, and also raise new questions ‐ not just in astronomy but indeed in fundamental physics. Instruments such as the recently launched Herschel and Planck telescopes are being put into orbit 1.5 million km away from earth, collecting the kind of data that is possible now because of technological innovations in the last 10 years. Data that could help us answer the very mysteries of the universe. Plans are afoot to venture outside of the earth, and even place telescopes onto the dark side of the moon.

The SKA is part of this frontier of new instruments. Some of the many questions to be answered are :

What is the nature of dark energy – a mysterious force that acts in opposition to gravity on very large distances, repelling massive objects from each other with ever increasing force?

How did the universe and all that is contained within it evolve – radio signals have been travelling through the universe for 13 billion years, and we are only receiving some of them today as we take “pictures” of the big bang and the first stars and galaxies. We will be able to make snapshots of the universe through time.

Mankind has long striven to answer the question of whether there is life on other planets? The detection of biomolecules, or even artificial radio transmissions, may answer this. These questions and more, however, probably do not approach the rich rewards that will come from not what we plan to investigate, but rather what we haven’t planned for. Radio telescopes today are not remembered for what they were built, but instead for what they serendipitously discovered.

When South Africa, with a rather small human capital base in radio astronomy at the time, submitted its bid in 2005, we took the international community by surprise. Any degree of afro‐pessimism was dismissed, however, when South Africa was shortlisted along with radio astronomy international heavyweight ‐ Australia. Why? Because we have something that no amount of financial investment could ever buy. We have one of the best locations in the world to build and operate astronomical facilities, and a very committed Department of Science and Technology and National Treasury.

The Southern African Large Telescope in Sutherland has some of the darkest skies in the world – and the proposed SKA core site, just 80km northwest of the town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, has one of the best radio frequency environments in the world, free from a majority of the interfering radio signals that plague most of the world’s radio astronomy facilities. Furthermore, because of our geographic location on the planet, the very best astronomical sources to observe pass right overhead – we literally have the best window on the planet out of which to gaze upon the universe, and explore the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Protection of this site is of the utmost importance – not only to protect South Africa’s geographical advantage, but to preserve the site for the world’s astronomical community. To meet this requirement, the Department of Science and Technology has promulgated the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, which allows for the establishment of an astronomy reserve in the Northern Cape Province. A reserve in which astronomy facilities are protected from sources of optical and radio interference.

The Australian Minister of Science has described winning the SKA bid as being like winning the Olympic site bid every day for 50 years. If the right to host the SKA were to be awarded to South Africa, and its 7 African partner countries, we would become a premier centre for research in astronomy and fundamental physics – going hand in hand with cutting edge development in the engineering technologies that co‐exist with this field of research.

As many of the technologies do not yet exist, to build the SKA will require a significant international effort in the fields of information and communication technology, supercomputing, mechanical, radio frequency, software and electronic engineering, physics, mathematics and, of course, astronomy. All fields that provide a basis for a strong knowledge economy. In 2004 the DST, together with the NRF, decided that simply competing to host the SKA would not meet the aims of building a knowledge economy – what was needed was a flagship project that would provide an opportunity to increase the skills base of our young scientists and engineers. We needed to participate in the technology development for the SKA, to grow a substantial base of scientists and engineers in South Africa that would be able to use, operate and maintain the SKA. And so was born the Karoo Array Telescope – an SKA science and technology pathfinder.

MeerKAT, as it is now known, will be the first radio interferometer built for astronomical purposes in South Africa. It will consist of 80 dishes, and once completed in 2013 will be one of the world’s premier radio astronomy facilities that will have not only South Africa scientists, but the world’s astronomical community, clamouring to use – 9 years before the SKA is scheduled to be commissioned.

Over the course of the last 5 years, we have built up a team of some 60 young scientists and engineers who are working on the technologies and algorithms required for the MeerKAT, which will in turn test the technologies for the SKA. Many of these people would have most probably left these shores already, looking for more exciting projects to work on in Silicon Valley, or other technology clusters. However, the lure and attraction of such a project as MeerKAT, and the larger SKA, has kept them here. Although none had any radio astronomy training, the team has quickly become an international leader in the development of technologies for radio astronomy facilities, which in fact are the generic technologies upon which the digital age depends, and are highly likely over many years to generate spin‐off technologies, innovations and patents. They have managed to do this through international collaboration with institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Caltech, Cornell and Berkeley, as well as the national radio astronomy observatories in the USA, India, Italy and The Netherlands. We are also working closely with several South African universities and companies.

Amongst other things, the team has developed the first every radio telescope made from composite materials, and is playing a leading role in the international development of digital hardware for real time data processing. The first 7 MeerKAT dishes are being constructed as I speak.

In a recent editorial in the local WattNow magazine, Paddy Hartdegen says the following of the SKA and MeerKAT projects : “In my view, gee whiz projects such as the SKA and the MeerKAT go a long way to encouraging youngsters to take science and engineering disciplines more seriously. And if there is some thrill attached to science, astronomy or mathematics, then the students will apply themselves more diligently at primary and secondary schools, to ensure that they will have the necessary qualification to enter a university”. He goes on to say “I believe that projects such as the SKA can actually foster the sort of compelling interest that is reserved for sports stars and pop musicians“

So, is Paddy Hartdegen right? Do the SKA and MeerKAT projects have the qualities that will attract students into science, engineering and technology? In 2005, we initiated a Youth into Science and Engineering program, to rapidly grow the human capital base in astronomy and engineering in South Africa. To date, we have awarded 142 post‐doctoral fellowships, PhD, masters degree, honours degree and undergraduate degree bursaries. We are currently awarding approximately 45 bursaries per year. We are assisting universities to increase their astronomy research capacity, and to develop additional capacity to supervise students through international supervisory programs. The question is, can these students stand on their own two feet within the international astronomical community?

For the last 3 years, we have held a post‐graduate student conference for our bursary holders, where each student presents the results of his or her research. We invite a number of international experts to attend. To date, none have declined the invitation – not due to the opportunity for a holiday in Cape Town, but instead because of the astounding reputation this conference has grown internationally due to the quality of students and research. Professor Steve Rawlings, Head of Astrophysics at Oxford University, said on his departure “I am awfully impressed by what I have seen at this conference and how things have exploded on the science and engineering side on such a short timescale. South Africa is doing all the right things for the SKA”.

So, what has the establishment of a flagship project resulted in? People. Skilled people. The new measure of financial prosperity. Skilled people who are helping to change South Africa’s reputation as a place of high technology investment, research and development. These students, who cross the race and gender lines, may never stay within the field. However, they will carry the skills they have learnt into new areas, and their impact will be felt through a variety of socio‐economic lines.

The SKA, and the MeerKAT, has matured into a project of which we, as the South African scientific community, can be proud. It is a project that should capture the South African public’s imagination, young and old alike.

Do we, as South Africans, have the skills and expertise to compete within the world’s scientific community, to produce scientists and engineers of the highest calibre that will compete in the global knowledge economy?

We have in the past, and we will continue to do so. The answer, therefore, is a resounding yes.

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Comments»

1. Tshepho Tebogo - September 5, 2011

The project is going to run smoothly. Please give Botswana citizens an opportunity to study for the project.Yes they are going to bring better results.

2. sikhalo - September 26, 2011

what contributions will physicists make in the SKA project, what role will they play?