South African Large Telescope and Square Kilometre Array projects: Departmental briefings

Science and Technology

08 September 2009
Chairperson: Mr N Ngcobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee was briefed by the Department of Science and Technology on the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project with particular reference to the MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope). The first part of the briefing was a presentation on the SALT. It was the single largest optical-infrared telescope in the Southern Hemisphere and was built near Sutherland in the Northern Cape. The second part of the briefing was on the SKA Project with special reference being made to the Karoo Array Telescope. There had originally been five countries that had competed for the SKA site. The bid was now between SA and Australia. The SKA was a radio telescope, which picked up radio waves. The MeerKAT radio telescope was similar but only a smaller version of the SKA. Members felt that there was much technical detail to absorb during the presentations, and it was suggested that the Committee undertake visits to the various sites in order to truly appreciate the telescopes. Members asked questions about the cost of the bandwidth to be installed, and the operational costs per year, and questioned whether it would be running by December 2009, what networks were in place, and whether the contracts had been finalised. Members also questioned what partnerships existed, and whether fuel cell technology had any impact upon the facilities. Members also asked whether the Cabinet had been involved in South Africa’s bid, whether all countries were funders, and who owned the telescopes.

Meeting report

Department of Science and Technology (DST) briefings
The Committee was briefed on the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Projects, with particular reference to the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT). The briefing delegation comprised of Professor Phil Charles, Director: South African Astronomical Observatory, Dr Phethiwe Matutu, Chief Director: Human Capital and Science Platforms of the Department of Science and Technology, Dr Bernie Fanaroff, Project Director: Square Kilometre Array South Africa, Dr Gatsha Mazithulela, Vice President: National Research Foundation and Dr Tshepo Seekoe, Chief Director: Radio Astronomy Advances of the Department of Science and Technology.

Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) briefing
Prof Charles undertook the first part of the briefing on the SALT. The SALT was built 17 kilometres outside of Sutherland in the Northern Cape. The area was conducive to the building of the optical telescope. It remained the single largest optical-infrared telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Sutherland hosted the project. SALT was an outcome of a joint partnership between South Africa and other countries. Telkom had provided the bandwidth connection, for the transmission of data from the telescope to the various stakeholders abroad. The cost of this was within the budgeted amount of R10 million for the SALT connection. South Africa contributed a third of the total of the US $36 million cost of financing SALT for its first ten years. This was broken down as  $20m for the telescope, $6m for the instruments and $10m for operations.

The South African National Research Network (SANReN) had commissioned Telkom to provide a 155 Megabytes per second datalink from SALT to SAAO in Cape Town. SALT was thus accessible to local and international scientists for research. Data was transferred via the Internet. Prof Charles said that the establishment of SALT and the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) in Namibia, together with the Karoo Array Telescope near Carnarvan, had made SA a strong contender to host the Square Kilometre Array Telescope. SALT had experienced some technical problems to date but these should be sorted out by the end of 2009.

Greater detail on the operational capacity of the telescope was included in the attached document.
Mr P Smith (IFP) referred to the bandwidth to be installed and asked if the cost was to be ten million US dollars, or 10 million rand, and asked for clarity on what the operational cost would be per year, if it was calculated over ten years. He asked what would follow on besides the bid for the SKA.

Prof Charles stated that the amount was R10 million for a 5 year lease of the line. He noted that the aim was that the operational costs should be US $1 million per annum. They were at present between US$1.5 million and 2 million per annum. Even at $2 million per annum, this was still the lowest operational cost for a large telescope. The operational cost was divided up amongst the partners of SALT in ratio to their share. Prof Charles pointed out that the US and Europe had plans to build extremely large telescopes. These would not be operational for at least ten years. The partners were struggling to keep costs below $1bn. He said that a bigger South African Large Telescope could be built with only 10% of that projected cost.  

Ms M Shinn (DA) noted that she had, a month previously, submitted questions relating to high-speed bandwidth to the Ministry. She said that an article then appeared in the media about high-speed bandwidth. Ms Shinn asked whether the network would really be up and running within three months, and whether it was really likely that it would be up by December 2009. She also asked whether the deal had been finalised. She asked what type of network it would be and where would be the link land.

Prof Charles said that the network should be operational by December 2009, because the cabling from Sutherland to Cape Town already existed. New cable was, however, going to be laid from Sutherland to the site 17 km away. He was not aware as to whether the deal had been signed.

Mr Mazithulela confirmed that the terms of the agreement had been agreed upon, but he was not aware of the deal being formally signed.

Ms L Jacobus (ANC) said she was aware that SALT focused on astronomy but nevertheless asked if it had any security advantages attached to it. She asked how the partnerships entered into on the Project benefited SA. Ms Jacobus also asked why there were not any partnerships with African countries.

Prof Charles reacted that he was not aware of any security advantages that SALT could have. He emphasised that African involvement was important. SALT was driven by South Africa, but, as its name implied, it was Southern African. Prof Charles said that the Department of Science and Technology (DST) had plans to improve astronomy in Africa.  

Ms P Mocumi (ANC) asked where the facilities were situated.

Prof Charles said that the facilities were located in the Northern Cape. SALT was located 17km outside the town of Sutherland. The area was conducive for the Project as there were only six other places throughout the world that met the criteria.   

The Chairperson asked what impact fuel cell technology had on astronomy.

Prof Charles responded that fuel cell technology was outside his field of expertise. It was not being used at SALT. He did however wish to see solar energy being utilised more at Sutherland.

Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project
Dr Fanaroff gave the briefing on the SKA Project, with special reference being made to the Karoo Array Telescope. He outlined the scope of the project. It included the SKA site bid, the construction of the MeerKAT telescope, development of expertise, and a human capital development programme. The Project entailed a partnership with seven countries. Five countries had originally competed for the site. The bid was now between South Africa and Australia. Dr Fanaroff remarked that perhaps individuals were asking questions as to why South Africa was pursuing “big science”. He said that the answer to this was that technology and knowledge based products were the fastest growing sector of world trade and South Africa could not afford to be left behind.

Dr Fanaroff explained that SKA was a radio telescope, which was in essence a large mirror that picked up radio waves. The MeerKAT was similar, but was only a smaller version. The SKA comprised of about 3 000 antennas spread over a 3 000 kilometre area. In total it would stretch over seven countries. He provided the Committee with photographs of how the sites would look when completed.

Dr Fanaroff also gave the Committee a breakdown of SKA bursaries and postdoctoral grants and fellowships. Efforts were also being made for school development in the Carnarvan area. The building of the SKA telescope would have direct benefits for South Africa. There would be job creation for the construction, skills development and also jobs for its continued maintenance. The construction budget was likely to be €2 billion. Operations and maintenance would likely be between €150 - €200 million per annum. There would be also socio-economic benefit spin-offs for the surrounding area. Local businesses would get a boost, the hospitality industry would pick up and the property might see an escalation in value.

Dr Fanaroff continued with detail on the MeerKAT telescope. It would be one of the largest and most sensitive radio telescopes in the world. The challenge was however to build the world’s largest radio telescope in half the time it usually took to do this. Dr Fanaroff gave the Committee a breakdown of timelines of the progress for both the SKA and the MeerKAT telescopes. Similar to the SKA, there were also collaboration agreements with various international institutions. The MeerKAT would be situated at Klerefontein. Members were once again shown photographs of the site and the progress made thus far. The briefing was concluded with some detail on the C-BASS and PAPER Projects. Please refer to the attached document for greater detail.

Ms N Dunjwa (ANC) suggested that perhaps the Committee could visit the sites that had been presented upon.

The Chairperson noted the suggestion and said that the Committee would be doing oversight visits soon. Visits to the sites would be strongly considered.

Ms Shinn appreciated the fact that South Africa was training people in astronomy but asked whether it would count against South Africa if it did not have seasoned radio astronomers.

Dr Fanaroff responded that there was a long tradition of astronomy in South Africa. There were many astronomy students. The idea was to build a team from overseas experts, but it was not an easy task. He pointed out that good people attracted more good people to a team. Dr Fanaroff said that South Africa nevertheless had a dynamic research community. He said that having good telescopes in South Africa would attract experts who would wish to use them.

Mr Smith referred to the Australian Prime Minister being involved in Australia’s bid to get the SKA. He asked to what extent were South Africa’s President and Cabinet involved in the local bid. Mr Smith further asked whether the African Union was supporting South Africa’s bid. He additionally asked what the relationship between SKA and MeerKAT was, and who owned them.

Prof Fanaroff said that the South African government had been very supportive. Attempts were being made to scale up the process of lobbying support. A roadshow through Europe was planned for early in 2010. He stated that the idea was to get embassies and the media involved. Presentations had been made to the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries.

Prof Fanaroff reiterated that the MeerKAT telescope was a small version of SKA. MeerKAT should be up and running by 2013. It would be the biggest radio telescope for the next ten years. MeerKAT had its niche uses. He said that MeerKAT was owned by the National Research Foundation. Ownership of the SKA would be more complicated. Prof Fanaroff said that perhaps a treaty system might work. Procurement policies needed to be looked at as well.

Ms Shinn asked if Australia’s bid on the SKA would spread across 19 countries.

Prof Fanaroff explained that there was collaboration with 19 countries but not all 19 were part of the funding committee

The meeting was adjourned.


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