The Astronomy Geographic Advantage (AGA) Act of 2007 is legislation that gives the Minister of Science and Technology the power to protect areas, through regulations, that are of strategic national importance for astronomy and related scientific endeavours.
An area can only be protected after it has been declared as an Astronomy Advantage Area (AAA). The Minister must undertake an extensive and consultative public participation process with all interested and affected parties, recorded on a permanent data base.
Once the Minister has declared a AAA, detailed regulations that flesh out what is and isn’t allowed in the area, must also be published. The promulgation of these regulations must also follow an extensive public participation process.
In 2012, after a nine-year bidding process, South Africa, together with its eight African Partner Countries, and Australia were named as co-hosts for the SKA (or Square Kilometre Array), one of the most ambitious international scientific projects of our time.
South Africa truly has joined the world stage by signing up for this global, multi-billion rand project to build what is described as the world’s largest scientific instrument.
Eventually, the SKA will make use of thousands of radio dishes across Africa and Australia to gather information from space by monitoring faint radio signals given off by stars and galaxies, allowing scientists to expand our understanding of the Universe.
To bring all this information together, the SKA requires enormous computing power and the development of techniques that promise to deliver major spin-off developments. One of these is “Big Data”, which could change the delivery and processing of information to people on a global scale.
Already, many young people in South Africa are benefiting from SKA bursaries to study astronomy, engineering, computer science and other related fields. The SKA is also creating jobs on the ground during the construction phase.
Along with the benefits of being part of a global project come commitments that we have made as a country. This document explains the legislation that was put in place to protect the radio frequency environment of the Northern Cape Province, making it possible for the SKA to do its work over its expected lifetime of 50 years while limiting the impacts on local people.
Radio telescopes work in much the same way as your normal radio. As you tune your radio to different frequencies, the receiver in your radio picks up different music stations. The big difference is that radio telescopes collect cosmic radio waves from outer space.
These radio signals are processed by computers that can interpret the signals to form images that give us snapshots of the Universe.
Protection philosophy of radio astronomy is to maximise the radio frequency spectrum available for the SKA so that the scientific work is not significantly compromised, and minimise the impact on local people and residual radio interference, and facilitate access to alternative radio communications.
South Africa has some of the best sites for astronomy in the world. This is why a number of countries have made major investments in various scientific facilities at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) at Sutherland, in the Northern Cape Province. The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, is one of those facilities at SAAO at Sutherland. It is operated by South Africa on behalf of its partner institutions from Germany, India, New Zealand, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States. The Sutherland site also hosts a variety of smaller South African and international telescopes and several facilities for geophysical research.
All these major investments in scientific infrastructure at Sutherland were made because Sutherland is an excellent location for ground-based optical and infrared astronomy. Since the observatory commenced operation in 1972, several key scientific discoveries of international impact have been made possible because of the darkness, clarity and stability of the skies over Sutherland. The level of natural seismic activity at Sutherland is also among the lowest in the world. This has attracted several geophysical facilities to the site. In 1998, free oscillations in the solid Earth, caused by the motion of the atmosphere, where discovered based on data collected at Sutherland.
Optical Astronomers use telescopes to study extremely distant and faint cosmic objects. The light from some of the most distant astronomical objects observed by astronomers is so ancient that it had already completed more than half its journey towards us by the time the Earth started to form 4.5 billion years ago. To study such faint sources, astronomers build their telescopes in the darkest and clearest places that they can find on Earth.
The Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, 2007 defines the term “astronomy advantage” to mean “features which make an area suitable for astronomy and related scientific endeavours, and includes high atmospheric transparency, low levels of light and air pollution, low population density and minimal radio frequency interference”, and requires that these areas are “protected, preserved and properly maintained”. The scientific qualities to be protected for optical astronomy and related scientific endeavours include:
- The very dark night skies that may be detrimentally affected by artificial outdoor lighting;
- The low air pollution levels that may be detrimentally affected by dust or smoke; and
- The low level of seismic activity that may be detrimentally affected by tremors caused by certain mining activities, fracking or wind turbines.
The astronomy advantage and scientific qualities of the Northern Cape Province can be regarded as a limited natural resource, to be carefully used and protected for future generations. In recognition of this, the South African government has established a series of measures to safeguard this resource.
The Northern Cape Province in general is an excellent region for astronomy and related scientific endeavours, have attracted SALT and the SKA to South Africa. Such mega-science projects result in direct investment in the Northern Cape, as well as technology and skills transfer to South Africa, placing the country firmly among the leading astronomical nations in the world.
Scientific studies found that the Karoo was one of the best places in the world for radio astronomy because it offers good atmospheric conditions, radio quietness, geotechnical stability, good security and good infrastructure. The core site (or SKA Virtual Centre) lies about 90 km north of Carnarvon, where 64 MeerKAT receptors, part of Phase One of the SKA, are currently being built.
The cosmic radio signals have travelled for millions, or even billions, of years over vast distances to reach earth, they are so faint that even the slightest disturbance can interfere with them.
These cosmic signals, for example, can be up to 15 orders of magnitude (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000) times weaker than those of an ordinary cell phone, which is why our radio and electrical activities might cause problems if we do not take some precaution.
To ensure protection of the SKA project, the government had to pass a law to protect areas suitable for astronomy studies by, among others, regulating radio and electrical interference.
This law, the Astronomy Geographic Advantage (AGA) Act of 2007, and the regulations that go with it, has implications for people living within an astronomy advantage area (AAA).
To implement the required protection measures, the Minister published Regulations on the protection of the Karoo Central Astronomy Advantage Areas that became effective from 15 December 2018. These regulations address four main areas, namely spectrum regulations, administrative procedures, compensation and electromagnetic interference.
Schedule A: Spectrum regulations
These outline the restrictions and exemption of radio spectrum use and the restriction of transmissions that might cause an interference. In terms of the regulations:
- The use of the frequency spectrum from 100 MHz to 25.5 GHz is restricted, subject to a prescribed assessment process.
- Permits will have to be obtained for permissible use.
- Essential radio communications services may apply for exemptions.
- Short range devices (SRDs), as defined by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) are exempted for units with an output of less than 250mW.
- Any interferences that arise will be investigated on a case by case basis.
Schedule B: Administrative procedures
These determine the procedures and criteria for the exemption of frequency use, the assessment of transmissions to determine interference impact, and for the granting of permits by the management authority.
They also outline the technical specifications, report format and qualifications of the person who will do the assessments and include the requirements for classification of an essential service and any possible concessions.
Schedule C: Compensation
These prescribe procedures for applying for possible financial compensation, as provided for in the AGA Act read together with section 25 of the Constitution.
Schedule D: Electromagnetic interference
These provide for the restriction of electromagnetic interference caused by electrical infrastructure, including electricity generation and distribution and the use of electrical machinery and equipment within the AAA.
Electrical infrastructure with a power rating of less than 100 kVA and further than 30 km from the nearest SKA Infrastructure Territory or further than 50 km for electrical generation by means of wind turbines is exempted from the requirement to acquire and possess a permit unless a disturbance is caused. An assessment, as prescribed in the regulations, must be carried out before a permit can be granted.
New electrical equipment and infrastructure with an electrical power rating of equal to or less than 100 kVA is exempted from the requirement to acquire and possess a permit unless it is found that radio frequency interference is caused.
Regulations on the protection of the Karoo Central Astronomy Advantage Areas in the Government Gazette No. 41321 of 2017 are not applicable to aeronautical mobile, aeronautical radio-navigation and radiolocation services operating in the frequency bands allocated to these services in the National Radio Frequency Plan published by ICASA in terms of section 34 (12) of the Electronic Communications Act, 2005.
The measures necessary for the protection of the Karoo Core and Central Astronomy Advantage Areas, which shall be applicable to the aeronautical mobile, aeronautical radio-navigation and radiolocation services, and to the use of aircraft within the Karoo Core and Central Astronomy Advantage Areas, shall, after concurrence is reached between the Minister of Science and Technology and the Minister of Transport, be promulgated by the Minister of Transport and be administered and enforced by the Civil Aviation Authority established in terms of Chapter 6 of the Civil Aviation Act, 2009 (Act No. 13 of 2009).
Mining activities prohibited within the Sutherland Central Astronomy Advantage Areas includes: Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), and Open cast mining and mining dumps at ground level.
The existing average moonless night sky brightness and the natural atmospheric extinction values, within the Sutherland Core Astronomy Advantage Area, that needs to be protected, are defined respectively in sub-regulations 3(2) and 3(3) in Schedule 1 of the draft regulations. Activities within the Central area that may detrimentally affect the existing night sky brightness and atmospheric extinction values are to be restricted. Existing activities that detrimentally affect the values must be restricted within one year of the regulations being promulgated.
Lighting activities within the Sutherland Central Astronomy Advantage Area may not adversely affect the defined brightness level in the Core Area. Indoor lighting is exempted but spillage to the outside that may affect the sky brightness within the Core Area is not allowed. All types of outdoor lighting must conform with the specifications in the regulations and existing outdoor lighting must be converted within one year after the regulations are promulgated.
Any activity that may involve any earth works creating dust within the Sutherland Central Astronomy Advantage Area must submit an application to the management authority prior to commencing the activity.
Wind turbines with a capacity of more than 100 kVA may not be operated within 20 km of the centre of the Core Area. Aviation lighting must comply with protection measures prescribed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to prevent light pollution within the Core Area. Pilot activated aviation lighting must be used. Any area lighting must comply with the relevant regulations in Schedule 1.
Assessment of light pollution may be arranged by the management authority to be carried when new lighting sources are observed. If the defined sky brightness levels are exceeded, the source must be addressed.
Existing FM radio transmissions will not be restricted and reception will remain as is. The government is currently undertaking a national program to migrate to digital television, in order to meet its international obligations. This national program will require all households with televisions to obtain a set top box to receive the new digital transmissions – either via terrestrial transmitters or from satellite. The poorest households, including those located within SKA areas in the Northern Cape, will be given subsidies for these set top boxes.
Based on the current draft regulations, the decreasing restrictions on sources of interference from the SKA core, together with the identification of essential services, means that it is unlikely that the availability of cell phone reception in towns such as Carnarvon, Van Wyksvlei, Brandvlei and Williston will cause an increased detrimental impact on the SKA. This would need to go through a proper assessment process resulting in some re-engineering of base stations. However, a circular area within a radius of about 80 km of the SKA Virtual Centre (or core) may be affected.
To compensate for the loss of communication and to support the SKA operations, an alternative radio communication system is in the pipeline. This system is based on an advanced, multi-channel, duplex radio communication system operating with mobile, handheld and fixed radios. This network will use similar frequencies to the existing low frequency mobile communication network (Marnet), which is not affected by the protection requirements. However, the new system will also enable users to make conventional phone calls.
A scheme for low-cost satellite VSAT communications is also being rolled out to provide for telephone and internet access.
Only electrical machinery or activities close to the core SKA area (up to 36 km from the centre) or close to a remote SKA station (up to 16 km, although some only as close as 2-3 km), depending on the topography and type of equipment, will be affected. None of the local towns will be affected.