Department of Science and Technology

Saturday, 16 July  2016


SKA core site, near Carnarvon, Western Cape

"We are here today to mark a major milestone in the establishment of the MeerKAT radio telescope .... We have travelled far to share this moment. Some of you have travelled far in terms of kilometres to be here today. More importantly, we have travelled far in terms of time: what we are witnessing today is the fruit of an idea that was planted many years ago. But most significantly, we have come together over space and time with a clear sense of collective purpose; a purpose that is almost outrageously ambitious and far-sighted. I am really excited to be here, to see what we have achieved and what we will achieve in the next decade."

I'm quoting. I'm quoting what Derek Hanekom, my predecessor as Science Minister, said when he marked the construction of the first Meerkat antenna on 27 March 2014 with a ministerial visit.

So what's so special as to require another ministerial visit?

We've come to show 21 Deputy Ministers and other members of the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Committee (PICC) why we're so proud of the SKA and MeerKAT project. The SKA and MeerKAT project, in which we have already invested R3,5 billion, is one of our 18 mega infrastructure projects.

As you may know, the National Infrastructure Development Plan is part of National Development Plan for South Africa.

Infrastructure development plays a critical role in our drive to create jobs and to stimulate economic growth.

The SKA project is one of two mega projects that falls under what the PICC calls 'knowledge strategic integrated projects', the other one being the expansion of broadband through points of presence in district municipalities.

I should add that the European Commission has placed SKA in its research infrastructure Roadmap 2016, as part of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI).

But that's not really the main purpose of our visit.

The main purpose is to mark the MeerKAT Array Release 1 (AR1) telescope, or simply put, the first 16 dish array that scientists can use for research.

But we haven't come here to celebrate a milestone.

We've come here to show the world the sort of research that the MeerKAT 16 makes possible.

First a warning. You may have heard that China has just finished building a radio telescope (acronym FAST) that the BBC a few days ago called the biggest radio telescope in the world. That's true, with this qualifier: it's the biggest single-dish radio telescope in the world. MeerKAT is an interferometer/array. They're both radio telescopes but they allow astronomers access to different fields of research.

There is no doubt that the Chinese FAST will be very powerful - because of its huge size, it can detect very faint radio sources. However, it has a very "blurry vision", because it's one single dish instead of a collection of dishes in an array spread over many kilometres like MeerKAT.

FAST and MeerKAT will address different scientific questions. In some cases these instruments will complement each other (in studying the same objects in the universe in different ways), in other cases each will be able to do things that the other simply cannot tackle.

MeerKAT was designed to be a 'world-leading telescope', the best of its kind in the Southern hemisphere. For example, MeerKAT was designed to contribute significantly to our understanding of cosmology (the study of the structure and evolution of the entire universe on the largest scales), as well as to the understanding of the formation and evolution of individual galaxies. These are some of the biggest open questions in astrophysics in our age, and relate to our fundamental understanding of how the universe is and came to be that way.

However, because of the ingenuity and hard work of South African engineers and related teams (scientists, managers), MeerKAT is turning out to be much better than originally designed. We've suspected this for about the past year or so. But now that the telescope is being built we're finding that to be actually true.

So right now, with only 16 of the eventual 64 dishes in place, MeerKAT is already better than anything equivalent in the Southern hemisphere. This is astounding, because we were supposed to reach that goal only with 32 dishes.

And we can now expect that when the full 64 dishes are in place, at the end of next year, it will be the best telescope of its kind in the world.

The First Light image, from 16 of the eventual 64 dishes that we were shown this morning, is so good that astronomers from around the world are going to be in awe of MeerKAT.

The First Light image shows hundreds of galaxies never before known to humankind. To those who consider what a galaxy is, with hundreds of billions of stars, and how far away most of them are, this is very humbling and remarkable.

There are galaxies in that image that are about 7 billion light years away. That means that the radio waves we're now detecting with MeerKAT left those galaxies 7 billion years ago, before the Earth even existed, since the Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Also, very few countries in the world have been able to even attempt scientific/engineering projects on such a scale, never mind succeeding so thoroughly.

But we're not yet learning 'new science'. We haven't answered questions about the universe, based on the one image. This is the first amazing image of many to come. They will get better and better as we march on to 64 dishes, to be followed (starting in late 2017) by 5 years or so of detailed scientific exploitation using MeerKAT by hundreds of scientists and students from South Africa and around the world. It will be those scientific projects that will in fact tell us many things we didn't know, on topics as varied as the structure and evolution of the universe, the formation and evolution of galaxies, and the nature of gravity.

“Big science” projects, such as SKA, are the nursery for the next generation of physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists and other specialists. The SKA SA HCD Programme recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Over this period, more than 800 university researchers, as well as students training to be technicians, artisans, scientists and engineers, have been funded by SKA SA.

In addition, SKA has also led to research infrastructure for astronomy sciences being established in countries that have not had such infrastructure before. Radio observatory facilities are being built by engineers and technologists in African partner countries through the African VLBI Network initiative. For the first time in four decades we are experiencing a brain gain in Africa as a result of the SKA project.

It is imperative for Africa’s scientists to work in Africa, if they are to support development on the continent, if they are to play a role in smooth technology transfer, and if they are to drive innovation. A global project such as the SKA is giving effect to all these objectives. This astronomy infrastructure presents a massive leap forward in terms of IT infrastructure, bringing enhanced high speed connectivity and computing capability to Africa.

SKA illustrates Africa’s drive for innovation. It will change the world beyond Africa because out of it will come a new way of thinking about the world, about health, and about technology. Africa’s socio-economic evolution will change conventional assumptions about every compartment of human activity.

In other words, it is my belief that Africa’s capacity for innovation will shape the future of not only Africans but everyone on this planet.

The reasons for the success of this ambitious radio astronomy project are many, but a key factor was that South Africa had a comparative advantage in relevant knowledge and geography.

South African astronomy stands at the threshold of very exciting times.There is a new vibrancy in astronomy in South Africa, with numerous young scientists, as well as top-flight senior astronomers, being attracted to our universities and facilities over the last decade.

It began with infrastructure located here, in South Africa, first, the largest single-dish optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), with its excellent optical qualities. It is complemented by the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.), a highly successful gamma-ray telescope built in Namibia by an international consortium in which South Africa played a small but important part.

And now the radio telescope MeerKAT, with an innovative design and data processing features, has surprised us all.