World’s first mega-science project hosted in Africa comes of age


The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande, has hailed the achievements of Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa project as a fitting way to mark Africa Day.


Today marks 10 years since  the decision for South Africa and Australia to host the SKA, the massive international radio astronomy initiative which, on completion, will be the world's largest radio telescope.


South Africa is one of the six founding member countries of the intergovernmental treaty organisation, the SKA Observatory.


The treaty, ratified by South Africa’s Parliament and the National Council of Provinces, will ensure the commitment of the participating countries in jointly building and managing the world's biggest radio telescope.


The Minister said that South Africa is to host the mid-frequency array of the SKA telescope in the Northern Cape, and that 133 more dishes will be added to the 64-dish MeerKAT telescope.


"On 25 June 2021, the SKA Observatory Council approved the start of the SKA construction plan and operations funding schedule, which details the member countries' funding commitments to implement SKA construction and first operations during the 2021-2030 period," the Minister added.


The total estimated cost of constructing of the SKA in South Africa and Australia, and the associated operations and business-enabling functions, will be €2 billion over the period 2021-2030. 


The procurement of major contracts for the SKA telescopes is already under way and will continue in the coming months.  It is expected that the SKA Observatory will place about 70 contracts with its member states, with competitive bidding taking place within each country. 


South African companies and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory will benefit immensely from some of these contracts, as it is taking a leading role on the work packages that will be rolling out the required infrastructure at the telescope site in the Northern Cape. 


"This will result in scientific, technological and socio-economic benefits for South Africa in the next 10 years and beyond, will create many jobs during construction and operations, and will build more skills through training and development," said Minister Nzimande.


In the spirit of Africa Day, the Minister highlighted the benefits of the SKA project, as astronomy in Africa has seen a growth spurt that is providing career opportunities for young students interested in the sciences and engineering.


"South Africa has awarded about 2 000 bursaries over the past 15 years for undergraduate and postgraduate studies in astrophysics, data science, engineering and artisanal skills.  This intensive human capital development and training is undertaken mainly through both the SKA HCD Bursary Programme and the National Astronomy and Space Science Programme," the Minister said.


Students from other African countries have also been trained through these programmes and some have returned to their home countries and developed astronomy programmes in universities there.  The bursaries are intended to develop a pipeline of skills that will grow the astronomy community to undertake scientific research through access to the telescopes that we have in Africa, as well as engineers to develop instrumentation and maintain the telescopes.


The MeerKAT telescope, built by South Africans, does great scientific work and will continue to do so until it is fully integrated into the SKA in the next five to seven years.


The Department of Science and Innovation, the Department of Tourism and the Northern Cape Government have signed a memorandum of agreement on the construction of an SKA exploratorium in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.  The initiative is expected to boost science awareness and outreach, stimulate science tourism in the region and create employment.


Issued by:

The Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation

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Ishmael Mnisi

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