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Rhodes celebrates SKA bid success

Date Released: Thu, 30 August 2012 16:00 +0200

Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor joined Rhodes University on Monday, 27 August to celebrate South Africa’s successful bid to host the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescope.

Minister Pandor said she feels that the occasion is one to make a lot of noise about.  “The university has realised what this means for South Africa, and others are still catching up,” she added.

The celebration event coincided with the official launch of the Centre for Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technologies at Rhodes (RATT), which will play an important role in the development of the SKA telescope through the cooperation of the fields of mathematics, physics, sciences and computing at Rhodes. The university has shown immense progress in radio astronomy over the last 50 years and the successful SKA bid heralds a new era of radio astronomy exploration.

Professor Justin Jonas of Physics and Electronics, who is also associate director for South Africa’s SKA Programme of Science and Engineering, has thus far been a driving force behind the construction of the country’s pioneering radio telescopes – the seven-dish KAT-7 and the MeerKAT array, the latter of which will be incorporated into the SKA.

The SKA radio telescope will be the world’s largest, most sensitive and possibly most sophisticated scientific instrument to probe deep into space. The enormous project is to be completed in 2023 and will bring innumerable opportunities to South Africa and to Rhodes.

“It’s going to create enormously exciting science and technology. The amount of data that will flow through the SKA is bigger than ever before,” said SKA Director of the South African Project, Dr Bernie Fanaroff, suggesting the involvement not only of scientists and engineers, but also of computer scientists to deal with ‘big data’.

DVC of Research and Development, Dr Peter Clayton, added that the project will affect all departments at Rhodes University and felt that the intellectual excitement is infectious. “It means a huge injection of infrastructure and bandwidth,” he said.

SKA Bursary and Scholarship Programme Manager, Ms Daphne Lekgwathi said the Human Capital Development Programme has been offering grants to students involved in the SKA project since 2005 and has also provided several universities with research chairs. She applauded Rhodes for its excellent work and research outputs in radio astronomy.

Professor Oleg Smirnov of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) has been appointed the prestigious position of heading RATT and says his main task will be to find clever post-doctorate students and produce a world-leading research group. He is excited about the upswing in radio astronomy, the practical side of which he feels has been lost since the 1980s in favour of theory.

Students working with Professor Smirnov will have opportunities to anticipate and solve practical problems that go hand in hand with creating larger and more sensitive telescopes. This includes removing distortions so that more data can be collected.

Prof Jonas, who was praised by several speakers for his leading role in the project thus far, was excited about bringing the celebration event to Grahamstown, as opposed to Johannesburg or Cape Town. He also remarked on the significance of training people who are both scientists and engineers, an area of radio astronomy he feels has been neglected over the past 30 years.

“Rhodes is up for it: all departments will work together: maths, statistics, sciences, computer science, physics and electronics,” he said. He also mentioned opportunities for students to work on the project both locally and internationally, as well as the programme attracting students from all over the world.

According to Dr Fanaroff, RATT will become a world class centre. “It will change the way we see ourselves. We can be a centre for science and cutting edge technology,” he said.

Top Rhodes students in maths, science and computer science in all years had been invited to the event to be inspired to choose the SKA project as a career path. “SKA will attract a new breed of undergraduate students who will serve as a beacon for students in South and Southern Africa,” said Dean of Science, Dr Ric Bernard.

The importance of research growth in the rest of Africa was also highlighted by Minister Pandor, who feels that it provides important prospects for networking opportunities. She underlined the importance of having young graduates involved in the project as it will reach fruition in 2023. “Good luck, and enjoy the opportunity,” she concluded.

By Ruth Woudstra

Photo by: Sophie Smith