Astronomy student numbers sky-high thanks to SKA

Following South Africa being awarded the lion’s share of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project just over a year ago, almost 500 students have received funding to study in as astronomy related fields.

Billed to be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope project ever undertaken in human history, the project, is being jointly hosted by South African and Australia.

SKA South Africa site bid manager Adrian Tiplady said through their human development capital programme they have thus far funded close to 500 science students who would be linked to the project.

Tiplady said the students, who were studying at universities and FET colleges, included researchers, technicians and artisans.

He said they were happy with the “high caliber” of students they were supporting and was optimistic that South African would produce scientists capable of working on iconic projects such as the SKA.

The funding program was not only important for the SKA programme, but also to encourage students generally to study maths and sciences, which could help improve the social-economic dynamics in the country.

Universities have rallied to support the opportunities brought about by the SKA.

Professor Romeel Dave, SA research chairperson in multi-wavelength astronomy at the University of the Western Cape, said the country’s hosting of SKA had generated more interest in astronomy at the university.

He said in the last few months the university had hired two new faculty members “who are directly related to the SKA science”.

He said these included himself and a colleague Mario Santos.

He said the university also had six SKA research fellows in residence, “funded by SKA to do SKA-related sciences” and more SKA fellows were arriving over the next year.

The university had positioned itself as “a major player” in the SKA project by focusing on theoretical work and survey science, two areas which were “complimentary, synergistic, and underrepresented” in the South African astronomical society.

“By making a bold investment in a critical area of need, UWC has quickly ascended to prominence nationally,” he said, and forged international connections which promote African interests in the SKA project.

Dr. Richard Armstrong, who left the UK 18 months ago to join a steadily growing radio astronomy group as an SKA fellow at the University of Cape Town, said the institution was now “the hottest place to be in radio astronomy in the world at the moment”.

In terms of infrastructure development, Tiplady said for the MeerKAT project, a 64-dish interferometer was being constructed which would form a quarter of the SKA phase one when commissioned in 2016.

He said the first dish would be launched by the end of this year.

By: Francis Hweshe


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