Africa is bidding to host the world’s most powerful radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). When constructed, in 2025, it will have 50 times greater sensitivity than any other radio telescope on Earth. The SKA will probe the edges of our universe, even before the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang. This telescope will contribute to answering fundamental questions in astronomy, physics and cosmology, including the nature of dark energy and dark matter.
South Africa is leading the African bid and has already legislated to create 12.5 million hectares of protected area – or radio astronomy reserve. This area is also referred to as the Karoo Central Astronomy Advantage Area, offering low levels of radio frequency interference, very little light pollution, basic infrastructure of roads, electricity and communication.
Shout-Africa.com believes the human story began in Africa and it can also be the place where we find answers to the story of our universe. So we have decided to inform our readers to the SKA project in Africa about the project and the advantages of the South African SKA bid.
About the project
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be a mega radio telescope, which will be about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope. It will consist of approximately 4 000 dish-shaped antennae and other hybrid receiving technologies. The SKA projects will cost about €1.5 billion with operating costs expected to be in the region of about €100 million a year. This will be the first project to provide mankind with detailed images of the “dark ages” 13.7 billion years back into time. The mega telescope will be powerful and sensitive enough to observe radio signals from the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang so if there is life somewhere else in the Universe, the SKA will be able to help us find it.
South Africa is already building the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT) which is a precursor instrument for the SKA, but will in its own right be amongst the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world.
Twenty four organisations from 12 countries, including Australia, Canada, India, China, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA, are involved.
Both South Africa and Australia have suitably remote, radio quiet areas for hosting the SKA and have competing bids to host the SKA. If Africa wins the SKA bid, the core of this giant telescope will be constructed in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape Province near to the towns of Carnarvon and Williston, linked to a computing facility in Cape Town. Other countries that will benefit by having stations placed include Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Mauritius, Madagascar, Kenya and Zambia.
Why is South Africa the best site for the SKA?
Africa provides the complete astronomy solution which is most valuable for science with an abundance of areas of Low levels of radio frequency interference and a certainty of future radio quiet zone.
It will provide Africa with the opportunity for significant investment in skilled human resources – bursaries for scientists from across the continent, training for technicians and artisans which Africa needs.
South Africa has the best physical environment with very little water vapour and calm stable weather conditions than other countries bidding. It also has affordable land, labour and support services which are readily available. It is an ideal geographical location with core basic infrastructure of roads, electricity and communication already in place and also safe and stable area with very few people and no conflicting economic activities.
The southern skies have long been known for their astronomical “richness” and strong tradition of astronomy and South Africa will offer an excellent academic infrastructure to support SKA science and technology.
The SKA Project
Following an initial identification of sites suitable for the SKA by the International SKA Steering Committee in 2006, southern Africa and Australia are the finalists. A consortium of the major international science funding agencies, in consultation with the SKA Science and Engineering Committee (SSEC), will announce the selected site for the SKA in 2012.
At about 50 – 100 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope on Earth, the SKA will be able to probe the edges of our Universe. It will help us to answer fundamental questions in astronomy, physics and cosmology, including the nature of dark energy and dark matter. It will be a powerful time machine that scientists will use to go back in time to explore the origins of the first galaxies, stars and planets.
The construction of the SKA is expected to cost about 1.5 billion Euro. The operations and maintenance of a large telescope normally cost about 10% of the capital costs per year. That means the international SKA consortium would be spending approximately 100 to 150 million Euros per year on the telescope. It is expected that a significant portion of the capital, operations and maintenance costs would be spent in the host country. South Africa offers a competitive and affordable solution for constructing, operating and maintaining the SKA.