SA's bid to host Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Radio Telescope: briefing by Department & SKA Project Team

Science and Technology

02 March 2010
Chairperson: Mr N Ngcobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

South Africa and Australia were the short listed contenders to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.  This would be the largest ever of its kind and would enable astronomers to detect signals dating from the very beginnings of the universe.  An international committee would make the decision in 2012.  A site had been identified in the Northern Cape, which was relatively free of radio interference, but the network of stations would extend into the rest of Africa.  The Meerkat radio telescope was being developed on the site and would serve as a demonstration of the country's capabilities.  It was stimulating much interest both in South Africa and on the rest of the continent.

An astronomical reserve area had been proclaimed to ensure optimal conditions for reception.  This would have an impact on radio transmissions, including cellular telephone networks, in the area.  Solutions would have to be found to minimise the effect on the population.  The project team was upgrading the Carnarvon High School.  There was a bursary scheme to encourage students to take up physics at a postgraduate level.

Members were disappointed at the low percentage of black and female students in the academic programme.  Children from rural and township schools were at a disadvantage.  The need for lobbying to support South Africa's bid was emphasised.  There was some dissatisfaction in the area as residents of Williston felt they were being left behind, and there was an allegation that the officials of the Department of Science and Technology were acting in bad faith.

Meeting report

Presentation by Department of Science and Technology
Mr Phil Mjwara, Director-General (DG): DST introduced the delegation.  He anticipated that Members might not have made acquaintance with the project.  South Africa was one of nine countries participating in the bid to host the SKA.

Mr Bernie Fanaroff, SKA Project Director, SASPO briefed Members and said that a farm had been allocated in the Northern Cape for the Meerkat telescope and was the projected location for the SKA.  The SKA was a radio telescope consisting of 3 000 dish antennae spread over nine countries.  It would be the largest and most technologically advanced telescope ever constructed.  It would bring significant challenges and would enable astronomers to make breathtaking discoveries such as signals from the beginning of the universe.  Efforts had been made to cut costs.  Mr Fanaroff said that the SKA would allow opportunities for pioneering science.  Nobel prizes might follow for research into the history of the universe and how it had been formed and changed over 13 000 million years.  Dark energy and dark matter could be investigated, phenomena, which were regarded as, the most important energy sources in the universe.  They had been unknown until recently.

Mr Fanaroff said that the estimated cost was 1.5 billion Euros, which he anticipated would escalate to 2 billion. The United States of America (USA) would contribute a third, a European consortium a third and the balance would come from the rest of the world.  He estimated that the life cycle of the SKA would be fifty years.  Maintenance still had to be addressed, but experience showed that up to 10% of the initial capital cost had to spend on maintenance annually.  Six countries were currently involved in the consortium and more would still join.  There was participation by 55 research institutes in 19 countries.

Mr Fanaroff remarked that planning of the SKA had started in the 1990's.  The plan was to build an antenna array, which would cover a square kilometre.  In 2003, five countries had responded to an invitation to submit proposals to host the SKA.  The application process ended in 2005.  From the applicants, South Africa and Australia had been short listed as contenders.  Other African countries would be involved.  The stations would be spread over a 3 000 kilometre area.  Not all could be placed within South Africa, which necessitated African partners.  Australia was large enough to host the entire telescope.

Mr Fanaroff said that DST had embarked on a four-year study into the design, cost and site tests.  There were still questions surrounding ownership and the establishment of a council to manage the project.  Fund raising would also have to be addressed.  The SKA would only be built from 2014.  He anticipated that it would take up to ten years to complete the project.  Funding could therefore be spread over the entire period of building.  A problem was that the European partners wanted to secure a third of the related contracts in return for their investment.

Mr Fanaroff said that a joint committee had to study the proposed sites.  A recommendation would be made towards the end of 2011 and the final site would be decided in mid 2012.  .  There was not an infinite amount of money available.  Many projects had been nominated but priorities would have to be assigned and some of the projects would have to be dropped.

Mr Fanaroff said that if South Africa won the bid then most of the stations would be located in South Africa.  Each station would comprise thirty dishes.  A spiral arm pattern of stations would radiate throughout Africa with stations ranging from Ghana to Kenya to Mauritius.  The team had identified an alternate plan, which would concentrate more stations in South Africa, but then the spread of stations would have to reach into Europe in compensation.

Mr Fanaroff said that the Meerkat telescope was a smaller version of SKA.  It would consist of 80 dishes.  There was a need to prove South Africa's ability to ability to manage the project.  There was also a need to grow the community of astronomers in the country and Meerkat was a form of tangible encouragement.  In this regard, South Africa was ahead of Australia. 

Mr Fanaroff explained that the telescope detected radio waves.  It had to be extremely sensitive and had to be located in an area clear of television transmissions and radio waves.  An astronomy reserve area would have to be proclaimed.  Parliament had already passed an Act to provide for this.

Mr Fanaroff said that this would be the biggest project of its kind in the world, and South Africa therefore had to invest in human capital development.  Some 200 students were already studying in the field.  A conference was held in Cape Town every December where the students were expected to present papers.  International speakers were also invited and the standard of debate was impressive. 

Mr Fanaroff continued that the mission driven innovations that the SKA would bring would develop crucial skills.  The Meerkat telescope would be one of the largest in the world.  South Africa had already constructed seven of the dishes to a local design.  By contrast the Australians had only developed one dish and all the work had been sub-contracted to Chinese companies.  It was DST policy that South Africa should be a world hub of astronomy.  South Africans had the skills but an exciting environment was needed.  The SALT telescope was the biggest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.  The HESS telescope, which was located in Namibia, detected gamma rays.  South Africa was already attracting international collaboration from institutions in the United Kingdom, the USA and India. The SKA would be the fastest computer in the world.  Spin-off developments would be crucial to the future lifestyle.

Mr Fanaroff said that South Africa had learnt a lot.  There was no previous local experience of radio telescopes.  South African astronomers had used the experience of others to leapfrog their counterparts.  The Meerkat project had changed many opinions.  A greater number of students were following courses in physics and astronomy.  They often did this for the excitement value rather than the money.

Mr Fanaroff sketched the background.  The site chosen for the SKA and Meerkat was near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.  The Losberg hill was a natural barrier to electromagnetic waves and the area had minimal radio interference.  Seven dishes had already been erected for the Meerkat telescope, and he hoped that the scientific work could start in 2013.  They had asked for proposals worldwide, and there had been 200 responses from 33 institutions in eighteen countries.  Many proposals had been put forward.  Astronomers from other African countries had been involved, and a result of this was universities in Kenya, Mozambique and Madagascar starting astronomy programmes.

Mr Fanaroff said that the SKA project offices were in Pinelands in Cape Town.  The dishes for Meerkat had been manufactured there.  The Department of Agriculture had given a thirty-year lease on a farmhouse called Klerefontein.  This would accommodate the scientific team, but was still 70 km from the site to shield it from radio interference.  The SKA would be operated from Cape Town by means of the Internet.  The satellite dishes were made of composite materiel.  This was the first use of composite material for this purpose worldwide.  The supply of power was a problem.  A 33 kV power line had been constructed from Carnarvon.  The local farmers were able to tap into this line.  The SKA project was investigating green power sources such as solar thermal power.  They were working with independent power producers.  The Northern Cape should be a major solar power supplier.

Mr Fanaroff described some of the other international radio astronomy projects.  The PAPER telescope was looking for the first stars using an array of 120 dishes.  The C-BASS telescope was looking for leftover radiation from the big bang.

Mr Fanaroff said that there were three criteria, which used in selection of the site for the SKA.  The first criterion was the scientific and technological performance.  The restriction of radio frequency interference (RFI) at present and in the future would be regulated by the Astronomy Geographical Advantage (AGA) Act. RFI would be measured at the end of April.  The site would have to be deserted at the time.  Future control would be needed over the environment.  Other considerations were the configuration, power supplies and the data transfer rate.  The second criterion was cost.  The South African bid would be 50% cheaper than the Australia site.  The final criterion was political.  It would be a question of the control that the host country would exert.  Developmental considerations also had to be taken into account.  Other matters of concerns were issues such as staff retention and maintenance.  Many arguments had been raised during negotiations.  It was essential to have a quiet RFI environment.  The proposed Australian site was in Murchison County, which had a population of just 120.

Mr Tshepo Seekoe, Chief Director, SKA Bid, DST added that the AGA Act had been envisaged to maintain the pristine conditions which gave the Northern Cape the ideal radio and optical conditions.  The AGA Act would prohibit or regulate activities, which would disturb the environment.  Radio transmission levels would be kept low.  There were three protected areas.  Firstly, the core area, the immediate area in which the telescope was located.  There had to be total radio silence in this area. Secondly, the central zone was a ring around the core area and thirdly, the co-ordinated area was a wider area where SKA would negotiate with service providers.  The process of declaration was under way, and should be completed in a year or two.

Mr Fanaroff stressed the crucial importance of site selection.

The Chairperson asked if there was any problem with Transnet operations in the area.

Mr Fanaroff replied that SKA had held good discussions with Transnet.  The communications system in use was designed so that transmissions were confined to the railway line.  They had held extensive discussions with mobile operators.  Regulations had been published.  SKA was involved with international committees, which reported to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).  Communication in the area was mainly by Telkom party lines.  It was considered uneconomical to fix broken lines or to upgrade the existing network.  There was little television coverage in the area.  Sentech only broadcast SABC 2 signals in the area although there were some illegal repeaters.  Television signals were rebroadcast into the towns.

Mr Fanaroff said that regulations limited broadcasts, GSM signals, mobile communication and data networks.  Television signals would be migrating to digital broadcasts.  Radio signals could continue on frequencies below 100 MHz.  SKA was studying the various service providers.  There were alternative solutions for voice communications but data was a problem.  Many of the farmers used cell extenders to connect to the network.  Solutions would be deployed over a year or so, and would be the same as the regulations prescribed in terms of the AGA Act.

Mr Fanaroff said that SKA had engaged with the community.  Public hearings had been held and forums had been established.  They had engaged with the teachers who were very enthusiastic.  There was much local involvement.  A socio-economic survey had been conducted in Carnarvon, Williston and de Aar.  There were many social problems in the area such as unemployment and alcoholism.  Many of the men were migrant labourers.  The pattern of agriculture had changed.  Many of those who had been farm labourers had now moved to the towns.  Many of the farms had been converted to game farms.  These required much less maintenance.

Mr Fanaroff said that a complaint raised by the public was that all the benefits were accruing to Carnarvon rather than Williston.  SKA projects made use of local labour but there were problems.  Some bed and breakfast establishments were serving the visiting scientists and construction workers.  SKA had provided a cyber laboratory at Carnarvon High School (HS) and planned to build a cyber cafe in the town.  They had brought in two mathematics and science teachers for the high school and planned to do the same for the primary school.

Mr Fanaroff said that Africa could not afford to be marginalised.  Successes of the project to date included increased respect for astronomy, the attraction of international projects and the development of local expertise.  It was still a problem attracting black students.  The student body was mainly white but SKA had introduced an undergraduate programme for black students.  The ratio of male to female students was 2:1.  Most students had stayed with the programme.  Five research chairs had been created at different universities.

Ms M Dunjwa (ANC) said that the presentation was interesting.  She asked how young scientists were being developed.  She asked how students from deep rural areas would benefit.  There should be an audit.  She asked if people in the area understood how cellular telephone communications would be affected.  She proposed that a workshop be held to educate the Members of the Committee where the SKA team could make a longer presentation.  She noted the comment that passing cars and devices such as microwave ovens could affect reception.

Mr Fanaroff replied that passing motor vehicles were only a problem within a few kilometres of the receivers.  Most of the roads in the area were very quiet.  The standard was for traffic of eighteen passing vehicles a day.  The problem was only with petrol-driven vehicles as the interference came from fuel injection systems.  Microwave ovens would only be a problem in the core area.  They had previously offered to host a workshop for Members.

Ms P Mocumi (ANC) said that science was the order of the era.  She asked how many persons with disability were involved.

Mr Fanaroff relied that the distribution of students in terms of gender, race and class was an important question.  It was difficult to get young black and female students with digital signal experience.  To find such students in postgraduate programmes was impossible.  Almost all the students accepted for undergraduate studies were black and as many women were accepted as possible.  Applicants for SKA assistance had to show that they could not afford to pay for their studies.  Experience showed that students from rural areas and township schools struggled.  Students who had attended the former Model C schools obtained the top marks.

Mr Fanaroff said that there were several problems.  A steering committee had been appointed.  Before SKA had made provision for the extra teachers at Carnarvon HS, the music teacher had taught mathematics.  Better quality teaching in mathematics and science would give the learners a better chance.  Online education could also be used to help.

Mr Fanaroff said that under the previous curriculum, only fifty learners had registered for mathematics on the higher grade in the whole of the Northern Cape.  These learners were mainly in Kimberley and Upington.  The question was how to help the students from the township schools and rural areas.  The volume of the work and study skills were needed overwhelmed them.  Many women were successful students and most of them were white.  There were some outstanding female students.  The Committee would be invited to the December conference.  A special session could be arranged for the Members to interact with the students.

Mr Fanaroff admitted that there were gender, racial and class problems that still needed to be overcomed. SKA interacted well with the Department of Education and had good relations with their provincial counterparts in the Northern Cape.  They still had to go a lot further.  He was not aware of any disabled students.  He could not remember any students with disabilities applying for assistance, but this information was not required on the application form.  SKA was keen to go headhunting for students and could target this group.

Ms L Jacobus (ANC) said that funding was always a problem.  This was a long-term project.  She asked if the estimated costs were spread over seven years

Mr Mjwara replied that there were two funding plans.  Mainly the international community would fund the SKA.  South Africa's own contribution was unclear at present and would be subject to negotiation.  A question was how to align funding with technological readiness.  It would be spread over ten years.  In the USA a review was held to cover a whole decade of projects.  Priorities were allocated before being sent to Congress for approval.  Their funds would not be cleared before 2015.  Funds from Europe would probably come in first. 

Mr.Mjwara continued that funding for the Meerkat telescope was a difficult issue.  They wanted to start with the scientific work in 2013 and commission the telescope in 2014.  It would need to be upgraded.  They were looking over a period of ten to fifteen years.  A funding plan had been prepared for National Treasury (NT).  This would fall outside the current Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) period of three years.

Mr L Mkhize (ANC) commented on the high unemployment rate in the area.  He asked if there was a mine near the site.  The project would boost Africa's profile.  He asked if there had been any consultation with other departments.  The Department of Communication (DoC) was busy with a programme to install satellite boxes for television receivers.  He asked what would become of the project should Australia win the bid to host the SKA.

Mr Mjwara replied that the mine alluded to was near the Australian site.  Should Australia win the bid, Meerkat would still be one of the biggest radio telescopes in the world.  There would still be a vibrant community in Africa.  Technological development would be ongoing.  There was no competitor for Meerkat at present.  The European and American governments wanted to see a win-win situation.

Mr Fanaroff confirmed that the nearest mine to the South African site was in Prieska.

Mr P Smith (IFP) understood the selection criteria.  He asked what room there was for lobbying support.  He asked what the logic was for the location of the outlying stations. The presentation indicated that it was a better solution to extend the chain of stations into Europe and he asked why the presentation was based on the inferior option.  Political choices had to be made.  The AGA Act provisions were part of the selection bid.  He asked if similar provisions could be enforced in other countries.  It seemed that the Australian site was quieter.  The RFI environment was the biggest technical challenge.

Mr Fanaroff replied that the restrictions were part of the Act.  They were still trying to work out the solutions.  Many of the provisions would only come into force should South Africa win the bid.
Mr Mjwara said that it was still early days for lobbying.  SKA had an office in Brussels.  A number of targeted meetings had been set.  Australia was channelling money into many areas, especially in the proposed site in Western Australia.  There was a need to lobby.  The design for the South African proposal was a spiral.  The latest option was a better design but had not been considered at the time.  A meeting in Manchester in March would consider this new proposal.  The outlying stations would cover small areas and would be easier to control.  He emphasised the need for radio silence for successful astronomy.  Power supplies were also important.  The SKA would need between 30 and 100 MW.  Australia planned to use natural gas as a power source as there was no national grid.  South Africa had a grid and wanted to use solar power.  Outlying stations would be powered by a combination of solar energy and diesel generators.

Ms M Shinn (DA) said that her colleagues in the DA had received reports from the community on electronic communications in the future.  They alleged a lack of consultation.  Mr Fanaroff had made various promises to the community.  At later meetings, Ms Tracy Cheetham had distanced SKA from his promises.  The community felt that SKA was operating with a hidden agenda and that they were stringing the community along until it was too late.

Mr Mjwara had sent Ms Shinn copies of letters, emails and a newspaper article.  Most of these were from farmers in the Williston area.  Some meetings had been held there but not as many as in Carnarvon.  One cellular operator had tilted an antenna down and as a result some people had lost their signal.  SKA had not been told about this.  The arrangement now is that no action would be taken before discussion.  Extenders would be provided for those who had lost their signal.  One of these had in fact been erected on the farm of a complainant.  They would try to rectify the situation. 

Mr Mjwara said that there was a perception that all future cellular coverage would be stopped.  This would not be the case in the towns, but it was not so straightforward on the farms.  Voice communication could be provided.  There was a possibility of having satellite links to the network.  There were no easy solutions.  Residents would not lose their current services.  They wanted to have cellular coverage in the future.  Some farms would experience problems and others not.

Mr Mjwara denied that Mr Fanaroff have made promises to the community.  There was a service level agreement in place with Eskom.  An optic fibre link would be provided to Carnarvon, which they were still trying to fund.  It would not be viable to provide optic fibre links to every farm.  This was not done anywhere in the world.  It was also not viable to have a cellular tower on each farm.  They were working on a solution.  Staff had held meetings at many Karoo towns.  The rules were not made by SKA or the DST, but were international standards.  If there were GSM signals in the core area then the SKA would surely go to Australia.

Mr P Monyobe, (Project Manager: Northern Cape Department of Education said that they had met the previous week to manage perceptions.  Carnarvon and Williston fell within different districts.  One area would experience greater benefits, as there would be more construction there.  The Act was clear.  Nothing would be taken away from the people without an alternative system being provided.  Everything would have to be cleared by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA).

Mr Mjwara acknowledged the need to communicate more comprehensively.  The DST needed to be more involved.  There was a need to manage expectations.

The Chairperson told Ms Shinn to send the letters in her possession to the Committee.

Mr Seekoe said that the AGA Act had been the first consultation with Parliament.  National government and the Northern Cape Province had been involved.  The DoC was responsible for communications in the area and for the management of the radio frequency spectrum.  The Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) had been consulted regarding Transnet.  There had been consultation with the Northern Cape Members of the Executive Council (MECs), municipal authorities and the Office of the Premier.  There had been lobbying on government and institutional level.  Partnerships and a sense of ownership had to be fostered. 

Mr Seekoe said that partnerships were needed in Africa.  In the following week, the Minister would discuss the SKA bid at a conference in Africa.  An increased effort was needed as the decision date drew nigh.  A global partnership was needed to secure the required funding.  At every meeting with the eight partner countries in Africa an agenda item was the management of RFI together with issues of development and access to services.  There were less stringent restrictions applicable to the outlying stations.

Mr Seekoe said that SKA was working with operators.  One option was the use of semi-directional transmitters.  All of the dishes would have to detect the same signal for it to be declared valid.  This would counteract false signals.

Mr Seekoe said that human capability was to be developed.  There had to be a balance of how this was achieved.  There was a shared vision with the Northern Cape, which a future university in the area could utilise.

Ms Mocumi said that many learners at former Model C schools had come from the rural areas.  Rural schools were challenged physically and in terms of human resources.  She asked what the Department was doing.  She thought that “far away” was a relative term and asked for a more accurate definition so she would know how close to the dishes a microwave oven could safely be used.  Head hunting for students with disabilities would be a challenge.  The environment was a problem for such persons who had no intellectual problems.  They could not cope at schools because of the environment.

The Chairperson said that department officials always had the same story regarding human capital development.  Apartheid was always blamed.  It was an unconvincing argument.  He asked what had been done in the last fifteen years.  A picture, which Mr Fanaroff had shown of black female students from the Durban University of Technology at work on the Meerkat site, was an example of window dressing.  The DST had a duty to ensure equal opportunities.  Of 23 students, nineteen were white, three were blacks from other African states and only one was a South African black.  There were still many examples of racist acts.  He had once submitted a scientific paper, which mysteriously got lost.  Parliament was accountable.

Ms Dunjwa said that it was often the case that the evils of a system could only be seen from the outside.  Sports bodies were holding development clinics to identify talent; once spotted they were placed in an environment which was conducive to developing their skills.  She asked why the DST could not adopt a similar approach.  Perhaps a pilot programme could be launched in two provinces.  Science and technology remained the domain of the few.  Deliberate exclusion was being practised.  The DST should work with the Department of Basic Education to produce black scientists.

Ms Mocumi asked if there was any interaction with teachers.  She asked how many of the teachers were from rural areas.  The Northern Cape was predominately a rural area.

Mr Mjwara said that they had engaged with the Department of Higher Education on a teacher-training programme.  The DST could not do this alone.  He agreed that there should be a development pipeline of children who would eventually be the SKA scientists.  They would work on the headhunting option.

Mr Fanaroff said that there was an argument over the distance at which microwave ovens could cause interference.  Factors involved where the nature of the walls of the structure which contained the oven, its condition and power output.  He thought that a couple of kilometres would be a safe distance.

The Chairperson said that any such programme should not just be for rural children in the Northern Cape but for all children.

Mr Mjwara said that the DST had adopted eighteen Dinaledi schools.  There was a pilot programme to develop a broadband infrastructure.  Teachers were part of the discussion.  The programme was active in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.  The focus was on mathematics and science.  Teacher training was being conducted.  Awareness was being created.  Not enough students were studying at post-graduate level.  Many black students were particularly challenged when they had the option of progressing to a post-graduate programme.  Often they were the first generation of graduates in their family and were expected to start earning a salary as soon as they graduated.  The DST thought that there should be a bursary programme and salary stipend for post-graduate students, but they did not have funds for such a scheme at present.  Up to R35 000 would be needed.  Some students were now electing to stay on after graduation to pursue Honours courses.  A case study was being presented.  This would be presented to NT.  After graduation, there had to be provision for a competitive salary as graduates drifted towards higher paid jobs.  Additional funds were needed for this.  There was also a perception that there were constraints, which could hamper a young scientist's progress in the organisation.

Ms Shinn asked what the developments were with the disciplinary hearing involving Prof Phil Charles.  She asked if these developments were being communicated to the Committee in an open and frank manner.  At least the charge and heads of argument should be made known.

The Chairperson said that the Committee should address the matter raised.  It was, however, not the appropriate occasion.

Ms Shinn said that it was on the agenda circulated to the Members.

The Chairperson said that the developments referred to on the agenda were solely regarding SKA.  The issue of Prof Charles was a different matter.  The matter was being dealt with at the National Research Foundation (NRF).  The Committee could discuss the issue when that body had made its report.  The disciplinary process should first be exhausted.  The Committee could not intervene in every dispute between employer and employee.

The Chairperson said that a joint workshop should be held involving both Departments of Education.  This would be a brainstorming session.

Mr Mjwara said that the target was set by the NRF.  They could not attain it.

The Chairperson said that there should be outcomes.

Mr Mjwara replied that this would be shown at the workshop.

Mr Fanaroff said that the workshop should discuss the situation with the high and primary schools at Carnarvon and Williston.  In all these cases the schools had been merged.  They had previously been Model C schools.  There were no other schools in the area. 

The Chairperson said that the engagement had been satisfactory.  The Committee would accept the invitation of attending workshops at the SKA offices in Pinelands and to address human capacity development.  He had heard disturbing stories about satellite launches and needed to engage with the DST before the Committee embarked on an oversight visit.  Private business was involved.  The Department of Finance should be involved. The Departments should meet and then report to the Committee.

The meeting was adjourned.


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