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The team behind the Square Kilometre Array

Date Released: Fri, 14 September 2012 08:59 +0200

Few ambitious astro-science endeavours have garnered as much international attention as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world. Nine years after South Africa’s first submission to the International SKA Steering Committee (ISSC), South Africa is now celebrating its selection as host of the majority of the SKA project.

When it is completed in 2024, the SKA will consist of thousands of radio antennas spread over a distance of 3 000km, simulating a single giant radio telescope with a total receiving area of one million square metres, the so-called square kilometre.

This telescope will provide a valuable tool for research in a variety of areas of astrophysics, fundamental physics, cosmology and particle astrophysics through these key projects:

   • Strong-field test of gravity (Einstein’s general relativity) using pulsars and black holes;

   • Investigating galaxy evolution, cosmology and dark energy;

   • Probing the cosmic dark ages and detecting the first black holes and stars to be formed at the end of the dark ages;

   • Investigating the origin and evolution of cosmic magnetism;

   • Searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life and planets capable of sustaining life; and

   • Exploring the unknown through discovering new cosmic phenomena.


The entire SKA mid-frequency array will be hosted in Africa, much of this in the Karoo area near Carnarvon, with remote stations in the African partner countries of Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namib ia and Zambia. In addition to being the largest radio telescope in the world, the SKA will also be the most sensitive, capable of detecting a signal the equivalent of airport radar as far away as 50 light years.

History of the SKA bid

While the original concept of the SKA goes back as far as 1991, South Africa’s involvement in the bid can be traced to 2001 and the construction of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT). After the SALT construction started the then Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST, and later the Department of Science of Technology (DST)) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) started exploring options for next big scienc e project. Discussions between the NRF, DST and the ISSC led to the country’s acceptance as a bid participant.

The South African SKA bid team was officially formed at the beginning of 2003, with the appointment of a project leader and the establishment of a steering committee. By May 2003, the team had submitted its initial offer to host the SKA.

In 2005, South Africa, on behalf of the African SKA Consortium, submitted its hosting proposal to the ISSC, competing against consortia from Australia, Brazil/Argentina and China, and was shortlisted along with Australia in 2006.

The period from 2007 to 2011 proved the busiest, with the compiling of detailed technical and scientific analyses of the proposed sites.

In June 2011, the SKA Siting Group (SSG) published a request for information to the shortlisted contenders, covering 11 scientific, technical and other criteria. Although the main report was limited to 150 pages, more than 27 000 pages of annexures were also provided to the SSG by the African SKA Consortium before the September 2011 deadline.

In December 2011, representatives from the SKA Africa team defended the Africa bid in front of the SKA Site Advisory Committee in London. The final decision was announced by the members of the SKA Organisation on May 25 2012.

Challenges of the bid

The team faced a number of challenges during the entire bid process, from mobilising and co-ordinating across the DST, SKA partner countries and relevant stakeholders, to collaborating with their Australian counterparts on common focus areas (such as technical and scientific analysis of the sites).

The level of science and technical analysis required was immense, ameliorated by both the support from stakeholders (particularly the DST and other government departments), the commitment of the SKA team and the competence of local industry. This is particularly noteworthy, considering the short timescale and the small size of the SKA bid team. The use of consultants and volunteers from the astronomy and engineering communities, as well as the high level of skills within the team itself, ensured that requirements and deadlines were met.

The NRF recognises the commitment, creativity and achievements made by the SKA bid team in securing the SKA project for South Africa and the partner countries; their contribution to the advancement of human knowledge in the fields of science and technology for the benefit of South African society; and the role they played in raising the country’s stature in the arena of international scientific research.

Source: Mail & Guardian