SKA, MeerKAT boost specialist companies

SA'S Square Kilometre Array (SKA) bid, and the construction of the MEERKAT radio telescope, have been a lifeline for highly specialised micro-companies.

One such company is EMMS Antennas, which develops products such as lownoise amplifiers, which amplify the faint radio signals from space while not interfering with the signal itself.

It also develops monitor and control systems, small microwave antennas and thermal management of all the electronic circuits in the antenna.

"Our skill set was too specialised to find applications in industry, and we remained a micro-enterprise, operating just above survival levels," LJ du Toit, MD of EMSS Antennas, said last week.

However, SA'S bid to host the largest radio telescope in the world and its commitment to building the precursor MEERKAT telescope have changed the company's fortunes. "We do entertain other business, but the bulk of our activity is in South African astronomy," Mr du Toit said.

EMSS Antennas is part of EMSS, which is a cluster of companies with offices at Technopark, Stellenbosch. Mr du Toit said there were about 100 employees overall, with group turnover estimated at R100m in the 2012 financial year.
EMSS Antennas has 20 employees.

SKA SA, the team running SA'S SKA bid with a unit focusing on MEERKAT construction, was created as a business unit of the National Research Foundation in the early 2000s, and "circa 2005 they started to assemble an engineering team to build a radio telescope", Mr du Toit said. "Astronomy .
demands extreme performance and fidelity from its hardware, often bordering on the limits of physics. And to make things harder, there are a plethora of engineering disciplines intertwined in such a device."
MEERKAT project manager Willem Esterhuyse said on Friday: "There's a very mutualistic relationship (between SKA SA and EMSS). We really need them and they need us."

Mr du Toit said EMMS Antennas employed mostly postgraduate engineers.

While the Meerkat's requirements were "challenging", success in this arena also equated to international exposure and the ability to "contribute a little to the global radio astronomy knowledge pool", he said.

The salient question is what happens when the MEERKAT telescope is complete.
"The hope and the view is that those skills will be required for SKA," Mr Esterhuyse said.

"We're (SKA SA) submitting expressions of interest for Ska-related work, but EMSS is also submitting one of their own.. I'd be surprised if they weren't included," he said. "SKA International project engineer Peter Dewdney on more than one occasion has said how impressed he is with their work. He said that the work they do and the skills they have really are world class.

"That's the level that they've grown to," Mr Esterhuyse said.

Source: Business Day


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