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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.

The US remains supportive of the Square Kilometer Array project April 7, 2011

Posted by admin in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), History, Policy and Education (HPE), Technology Transfer, Business Development and Entrepreneurism (TBE) , 1 comment so far

Though the United States did not officially join the Founding Board of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the US does remain supportive of the project. In large part, the decision not to join the Founding Board is based on the recommendations of the most recent astronomy decadal survey performed by the National Research Council, “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics,” released in August 2010. This report concluded that the combination of technical readiness and high cost risk made it unfeasible for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to invest in SKA construction during the 2010-2020 decade. NSF has accepted that conclusion and is setting a priority for SKA construction that is consistent with this conclusion and the other recommendations of the decadal survey.

NSF has invested in SKA technology development and in several radio telescopes that serve as scientific and technical pathfinders for the SKA, as well as pursuing some of the science goals envisioned for the international SKA, and will continue to make such investments as funds and independent reviews permit.

The SKA is an exciting project for astronomy. It was originally conceived as a focused project to study the end of the “Dark Ages” – the time when the first stars, black holes, quasars, and other high energy objects formed, ionizing the almost 100% neutral hydrogen gas left around from the Big Bang. You can imagine the universe at say z=20 being dark and transparent. But as the ultraviolet light begins to come from the first sources, the light ionizes larger and larger regions of the Universe – sort of like Swiss Cheese until redshift around z=6 where most of the hydrogen is ionized as it is today.

The SKA will slice through this redshift range giving us an accurate tomographic image of the Universe as it begins to form the elements of the periodic table, and begins to form the seeds of what we now see are galaxies and massive black holes. Its science case has expanded since then, but the main focus of the science is the tomography of the early Universe.

But the final SKA design is far from certain. Technology is still in development, and the final cost of the SKA is quite unknown. It may turn out actually that the SKA evolves to be three very large telescope arrays that are not co-located. A major factor of the SKA to site in a region free from FM carrier frequencies, and there are remarkably few in the world. Among them are sites selected in Africa and in Australia.

No definitive scientific rationale has emerged to favor the African site over the Australian or vice versa. Each project is pursuing pathfinder telescopes as pre-cursors to the SKA, and each is molded better to different capabilities.

But there may be international policy issues that would motivate the US to help fund the project now. The US presently supports, and will build, new major telescopes in Chile, including the LSST, CCAT, and ALMA the latter being an international collaboration. Chile has benefited greatly by hosting these telescopes, not only in building astronomy programs, but through other spill-over effects, e.g., broadband connectivity, service sector jobs and growth in the knowledge-based innovation economy. During President Obama’s recent trip to Chile, he and President Pinera issued a joint communique that they recognized the close historical collaboration in astronomy between the two countries and looked forward to future projects.

There are scientists and policy makers that would like to see an astronomy-catalyzed economic transformation in Africa. South Africa already has a long and distinguished history in astronomy research. Astronomers are developing academic programs and research telescopes in Botswana, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Zambia, and others. Last December African astronomers organized the African Astronomical Society to be the voice of the astronomy profession on the continent and to be the continental interlocutor with other astronomy professional societies around the world. The SKA is a tremendous opportunity to help develop astronomy in Africa. If the Chilean example is a guide, the SKA would help develop high-tech industry and build a larger community of African astronomers, physicists, and engineers.

But the results of the decadal survey stunts the rationale for large-scale US investment (and for the US that means NSF funding) in the SKA, at least for this decade. This is probably the right choice. There are other projects, e.g., WFIRST, LSST, where the technology is more mature and thus closer to fruition. As the US faces limited fiscal options the decadal survey is the accepted process for the field to make hard decisions. Without a determined technology for SKA there is no way to make any firm cost determinations. So the question of whether to support the SKA long-term remains open.

But all is not lost for this decade. The South African MeerKAT and Australian ASKAP, both of which will be completed in this decade, will be extremely powerful telescopes. The MeerKAT in particular will be well-suited for pulsar timing studies that can reveal much about relativity, gravitational lensing, and nuclear physics.

Maybe this decade will see investments from other functions of the federal budget, e.g., foreign assistance through the State Department. Maybe the foreign assistance budgets of other donor countries can be brought to bear on the SKA project. After all, the total budget for the SKA construction is actually quite small compared to the total amount pledged by the G20 nations for development in Africa. Maybe the US Commerce Department, other nations’ ministries of industry, and private corporations will view the SKA as a technology incubator and thus find funds to help with technology development. And maybe philanthropists will find the SKA worthy of their donor dollars.

What remains true is that in Africa the SKA project has a full head of steam. South African science minister, Naledi Pandor, has said, “I am intent on ensuring that South Africa wins the bid to host the Square Kilometer Array radio telescope” and “…[I am] …not going to entertain any matter that might distract me from achieving that goal.” The Heads of State of the African Union have endorsed the African bid for the SKA telescope, signaling multilateral cooperation at the highest levels for this project.

The African SKA project team has already achieved impressive results with their KAT-7 precursor telescope, as well as in electronic design, manufacturing and logistics. And the SKA Project Office has conceived and developed the extremely clever idea of an African VLBI network that would use decommissioned communications dishes across the continent. Five years before South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope becomes operational, more than 43,000 hours of observing time (adding up to about five years) have already been allocated to radio astronomers from Africa and around the world.

The SKA human capacity development program is already an unqualified success. The challenge is to keep the steam chest full and to build on all these successes. The National Society of Black Physicists will of course maintain its collaborations with the African astronomy community. In addition to producing outstanding astronomy research results, we believe the African SKA will lead to the creation of an African scientific technological base that will in turn act as the engine of African economic development and will transform the African economy to one that is more based on knowledge, connectivity, technology and innovation. As an international research center located in Africa, the SKA will help unbridle the imaginations of young Africans and inspire them to pursue math and science at school, and to follow careers in science and engineering. This would create a critical mass of problem solving thinkers, able to find solutions to the water, food, health, energy and environmental challenges of the continent.

IAU Symposium No. 277 – The Context for an Astrophysics Meeting in Burkina Faso February 10, 2010

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by Claude Carignan

On February 2nd 2010, the First Announcement for IAU Symposium No, 277 (Tracing the Ancestry of Galaxies – on the Land of our Ancestors) to be held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso on December 13-17, 2010, was sent.

While enthusiastic responses were received, a message was also suggesting that we were organizing “scientific tourism” in Africa and even one department had already decided not to let their students and post-docs attend the conference. It was in fact a good thing that this person came forward since it gives us the opportunity to put this meeting in context.

As far as the science goes, I think the scientific rationale given speak for itself (see www.iaus277.org )

But the question to answer is why hold such a meeting in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which on the Human Resources Index  (HDI) of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is classified 177/182 countries.

see: http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR_2009_EN_Summary.pdf

In fact, five years ago, I was asked (I didn’t get the idea, myself) by the Minister of Education and Research in Burkina Faso (who got his degree at the Université de Montréal) if I would like to come and set up an Astrophysics program at the Université de Ouagadougou that would eventually become a center of Excellence that could deserve the Western Africa sub-region. This is an approach now used in many fields. Since resources are limited, the idea is not to develop departments of everything everywhere but to develop a new research activity in one country that could then deserve the whole sub-region.

We define the program in 2006 and the Science Council of the University accepted it at the beginning of 2007. I got great support from my University in Montréal. However, one of the problems with teaching sciences in Africa is that usually the level of the courses is OK (most of the faculties get their formation in Europe) but the labs are empty. So we thought that if we were going to set up a program, we would also build a small Observatory (25cm + CCD + appropriate filters and computers) for teaching purposes such that the practical work could be done on that telescope.

The first undergraduate class was given at the end of 2007 to ~100 students and the teaching Observatory was inaugurated by the Prime Minister on November 26, 2007: http://astro.univ-ouaga.org/. The first graduate course (Msc) was given at the beginning of 2009 to ~20 students. A full graduate program with 8 courses has been set up. The idea is to provide (with the help of many colleagues from around the world) the teaching for 4-5 years while we are forming 4 Burkinabè PhD (2 have started in Montréal, 1 will be going this year to Université de Provence and hopefully another one to South Africa) that will then take over the program once their degree will be completed (they are assure to get a position at the University de Ouagadougou).

While data mining allows to get good data sets for thesis even when you don’t possess your own telescope, with the Marseille people, we submitted a project to the OAMP in order to move the Marly telescope (EROS project) from Chile to Burkina Faso. It was accepted in December 2008 and the Marly telescope was put in crates last October in La Silla. It left Valparaiso on October 31st, arrived in Tema, Ghana on December 15 and the container was unloaded last Friday in Ouagadougou. With the help of many people (especially UdeM, LAM & OHP people) we hope to have the refurbished telescope operational end of 2011. Collaborators from the LAM and the LAE (Laboratoire d’Astrophysique Expérimentale in Montréal) will provide state-of-the-art instrumentation. This will help forming the students in BF and not loosing them to northern countries, which often happens when they get their formation overseas. We are in the final stages of the drawings and are getting help from the World Bank to build the infrastructures. The only money missing is for the solar energy power and the geothermal air-cooling demanding much less power than the conventional systems (a class of engineers is working on the project in Montréal). Hopefully, we’ll soon find the money for this part.

The main reason to hold the meeting here is to mark the beginning of Astrophysics in Burkina Faso and the construction of the Research Observatory. For the people here, to receive 200-250 among the best Astrophysicists in the world is a great motivation. Parallel to the scientific meetings we are also organizing, during the week of the conference, public talks for the students, special workshops for secondary school students and Astronomical Exhibitions in a central location.

I hope this helps to put this meeting in the context of the project initiated 5 years ago.