"You could say my entire academic career is owed to the SKA," said Professor Oleg Smirnov, who holds the SKA SA Research Chair in Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technologies (RATT), at Rhodes University, and heads up the new Radio Astronomy Research Group at the SKA SA office in Cape Town.
By the time Smirnov started his radio astronomy career in 1999 at ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, the concept of the SKA had already blossomed and therefore shaped his research path.
"I got into science for the thrill of problem solving," Smirnov remembers. "Now, I enjoy training young scientists and seeing them experience that too."
RATT is about hardware and software for the future with the SKA and MeerKAT in mind. It is one of very few groups in the world filling this crucial gap between radio astronomy and engineering – and therefore gives South Africa a competitive edge in this field." - Prof Justin Jonas, Associate Director: Science and Engineering, SKA South Africa and Rhodes University.
Building and operating the SKA will provide many problems to solve for technicians, engineers, computer scientists, physicists and astronomers. And once the telescopes are built, many of these skills will flood into other sectors of South Africa's knowledge economy, Smirnov believes.
His research focuses on calibration and imaging techniques, and right now the field is experiencing a rush of new ideas. His highlight in recent astronomical findings is the discovery of many Earth-like planets. "And on a more parochial note," he adds, "the discovery by the world that South Africa is a major scientific destination, thanks to the MeerKAT project, and the SKA site decision, is just as exciting!"
The RATT group was established at Rhodes University in 2012, and already has a number of students enrolled, including two PhD students (from Ghana and Cameroon) and an Msc student from Mauritius.
From South Africa an honours student has already joined the group and a third doctoral student will arrive soon. Two post-docs (an American with a PhD from Oxford, and an Indian with a PhD from the University of Illinois) have accepted offers and are due to arrive within a couple of months.