SA builds its case for mega telescope project - TechCentral

SA builds its case for mega telescope project

Square Kilometre Array

A remote spot in SA’s Karoo desert has taken a first 
step towards hosting one of the most powerful scientific instruments 
in history, to shed light on how the universe began.

Driving the dirt road to the Karoo Array Telescope site, the FM 
radio searches in vain for a frequency it can catch, scanning the 
dial bottom to top and back again.

This very quiet corner of SA’s sparsely populated
 Northern Cape province seems an unlikely place to build such an 
instrument, but its silence is precisely what makes the Karoo an 
attractive site for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope 
project.

Scientists hope the SKA, a massive new radio telescope linking
 3 000 antenna dishes, will shed new light on fundamental questions 
about the universe, including how it began, why it’s expanding and
 whether it contains life beyond our planet.

To do that, the SKA will need a quiet radio spectrum, clear 
skies, high altitude and low seismic activity, according to Albert
van Jaarsveld, president of the  National Research 
Foundation, which is helping mount the country’s bid to build the 
ultra-powerful new telescope.

“The remoteness of this location is its strength and not its
weakness,” Van Jaarsveld told journalists Tuesday on a visit to the
 proposed site.

SA is competing with Australia to win the contract for
 the SKA, a multibillion-dollar instrument that will be 50 times
 more sensitive than today’s most powerful radio telescopes.

The countries are the last two candidates in a five-year
 competition that has seen an international steering committee
 narrow the field from five proposals to two.

SA, which plans to spend R234m on the project by 2015, has 
built seven antenna dishes and recently linked two of them
 together, the first time a multi-receptor radio telescope has been 
tested, officials said Tuesday.

Van Jaarsveld said the test puts SA ahead of Australia 
in the race for the SKA.

If SA wins the bidding, engineers will connect
 antennas in the arid Karoo region by remote link to a network of
 dishes stretching across southern and eastern Africa and as far
away as Ghana.

Australia’s bid puts the core site at Mileura station, about 100km west of Meekathara in western Australia. Other antennas would be distributed across Australia and New 
Zealand.

The SKA steering committee, which represents a consortium of 17
 countries involved in the project, is expected to make its final
 decision in 2012.

Scientists hope when the SKA is complete — sometime around 2021
– it will pick up radio waves emitted by the first stars and
 galaxies to emerge from the big bang that created the universe.

It will also trace the effects of the so-called dark energy that
is driving the universe apart and hunt for Earth-like planets 
orbiting other stars.

SA officials hope the project will help make the
country a hub of scientific activity and reverse the “brain drain” 
that has seen Africa lose much of its top scientific talent to the 
rest of the world.

“If we succeed in bringing the SKA to Africa, it will be a major
 catalyst for the development of science and technology on our
 continent,” said science & technology minister Naledi Pandor.

“I can tell you from speaking to scientists and academics
 regularly that unless we have the facilities that make the study of
 science attractive, we will not keep scientists in our country,”
she said.

“Through this project, what we’ve begun to do is reverse the
 brain drain.”  — Sapa-AFP

1 Comment

  1. Good job it’s being built in the Karoo – otherwise people would probably mistake them for DSTV dishes and steal a few.

    Well, hey, if two of the spinoffs are: more/cheaper/stabler power supply, and revitalized interest in a high-tech industry, this would all work out well. Now the government just has to work towards solving the plethora of other issues in SA.

    ~ Wogan

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