Square Kilometre Array Project: Departmental progress report

Science and Technology

15 March 2011
Chairperson: Dr N Ngcobo (ANC)
Share this page:

Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and technology (DST) briefed the committee on the progress and developments of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project. This was a flagship programme involving multiple forms of lobbying. At the outset, it was explained that the funding commitment of R580 million had not changed, but that design review meant that the funding would now be spent from 2012 onwards. South Africa was putting in a bid, against Australia, to host the SKA, but it would essentially be an African bid, requiring strong commitment from other African partners. The DST was already working with schools and the community around awareness, and to promote scientists and engineers who would be required to take the project further, and promotion of electronic and industrial sectors was being prioritised in the Northern Cape. The different phases of the bid were outlined. Work with African partner countries included appointment of project managers to investigate the possibilities, as well as significant research into the technologies for the SKA telescope. Site selection was ongoing, and potential sites were being tested as they had to be “radio-quiet”. Legislation had already been passed in anticipation of protected areas. An international committee would be evaluating the bids in early 2012. In the meantime other nations were bidding for hosting the international project director and staff.

The DST had undertaken the building of the MeerKAT telescope, and system engineering approaches on this had been followed for the final design aspects of the SKA. After the R&D processes, there would be a three-year engineering design phase with the telescope being built from 2016. Pre-construction plans were under review by the international office and would be published shortly. The MeerKAT telescope was built, on a smaller scale than SKA, largely to show the international community that Africa had the capacity to conceptualise, build and maintain such a telescope. The first prototype had been built at Haartbeeshoek, followed by one in the Karoo, and its infrastructure would be rolled out until 2012. The first contract for the antennae structure was likely to be awarded in the following year, and, if the SKA bid was successful, the MeerKAT team would be redeployed to the SKA. The DST stressed that even if South Africa did not win the SKA bid, the benefits would still be tremendous, as there had been development of world-class science, development of people who would most likely be headhunted to work on construction of the SKA, wherever it occurred. The MeerKAT and SKA used similar technology, although SKA was one of the biggest instruments of the world, and would be the only one able to observe at certain frequencies in the southern hemisphere. DST stressed that SALT, MeerKAT and SKA could produce different but complementary information from observing the same object. If the MeerKAT could do multi wavelength astronomy, it would provide huge competitive advantages for South Africa, which also had a geographic advantage, allowing South Africa to become a key player in mathematics astronomy. Satellite communication facilities previously used by Vodacom, which ha now become redundant, could be converted. International lobbying aimed to maximise South Africa’s chances of winning the bid. Funding would need to include private sector and American funding, with African support.

Members asked about the re-design processes, and the distinction between the three telescopes was explained, with a further explanation of what Australia had built as a demonstrative telescope, and why South Africa had chosen another strategy. Members noted that the USA decadal survey on astronomy had not allocated funding for SKA, and questioned the European Union commitment, and the DST explained the role that development funding could play, and the link with other initiatives. Members also questioned if there was likely to be any conflict with gas exploration in the Karoo. Members also asked about recruitment of disabled people, and involvement of rural communities and other smaller towns, questioned what was planned to address shortage of artisans and technicians in communities, asked why the SKA Cyber Lab was launched at an Afrikaans school and whether the students were to be taught in English, and what the criterion were for selection of Carnarvon. Members also questioned the demographics of the bursary holders and insisted that foreign and local Africans should be listed separately. Members further questioned the marketing and awareness drives, the appointment of ambassadors for the project, how other international conferences would be used to lobby, the roll out of communications networks and political buy-in from other countries. They asked why only three of the five research chairs were filled, and examined further economic and technology spin-offs. They also questioned why the SALT was built instead of putting all funding from the outset into SKA.

Meeting report

Square Kilometre Array Project: Department of Science and Technology (DST) progress report
The Chairperson noted that there was much public interest in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, which was a very important project for South Africa. South Africa was hoping to win its bid competing against Australia for the hosting of the SKA.

Mr Val Munsami, Deputy Director General: Research, Development and Innovation, Department of Science and Technology noted that not all the images that he would show were included in the hard copy of the document.

Mr Munsami noted that many questions had been asked about the funding for the SKA. The funding commitment had not changed from what National Treasury (NT) had previously allocated, which was R580 million for the financial year ending on 31 March 2011. The Department of Science and Technology (DST or the Department) had to look at the design review of the demonstrative project, so there had to be some reprioritisation to align with the final SKA design. DST had now decided, rather than holding back on the funding, to ask NT to release funds, and these would be rolled over so that just over R200 million would be allocated for the 2012/13 financial year and just over R300 million for the 2013/14 financial year, with the total remaining at R580 million.

Mr Munsami then turned to the bid to host the SKA, which, he stressed, was an African bid, so stronger engagements with other African partners were a critical component. The whole SKA could be put in Australia, but could not be put in South Africa, so there was a need to rely on other African partners. The Minister was hosting a meeting of African ambassadors on Friday to advise them and bring them on board.

The DST, in pursuance of general science awareness, had started working in the schools on a robust programme on the SKA project, and a computer lab was launched at Carnarvon High School, with similar initiatives at primary school level, encouraging students to take an interest in science and engineering, especially in those communities where there were social challenges. 263 bursaries were awarded to support undergraduate studies. Scientists and engineers would be needed to take the project forward.

The SKA needed full support of the electronic sector, with industrial and electronics capability, as there was a space sector building satellites. Government had targeted areas where there was not much development to promote this, which was the Northern Cape.

Mr Munsami likened the SKA project as “the World Cup for the Department” and this meant that the DST was actively engaged in lobbying, including support for funding of the Africa bid.

The Chairperson asked Mr Munsami to identify which ministries were involved so that he could assist in that regard.

Mr Munsami listed some of the departments involved.

Ms Anita Loots, Associate Director: Square Kilometre Array SA, Department of Science and Technology, then briefed the Committee on the different phases and progress to date (see attached presentation for full details). She also noted that the human development programme was important for the eventual running of the telescope and working with the data for world-class science.

She noted that much work was being done in developing the African partner countries, including appointment of a project manager to investigate which countries would be interested in building their own facilities and bringing them on board, to assist them in building new facilities or converting existing facilities to link into an Africa network. International work was also being done in developing the technologies that would ultimately be built into such a telescope, and this involved significant research and development (R&D) and balancing of cost. She reiterated that the actual telescope would be deployed across Africa, making this an African bid.

Ms Loots then dealt with the site selection process. A Bill had been approved, protecting radio and optical astronomy in South Africa in certain areas. Ms Loots tabled an image of the Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) container with all the RFI equipment, and noted that any site selected had to be “radio-quiet”, and, both in Australia and South Africa, trailers were being tested at proposed sites for the remote station, to check if these requirements were met. A site selection document listed the work that had to be done by the different countries before submitting final documentation for the bid. An international committee would be sitting to evaluate the bids in early 2012, and a decision was expected from May.

A concept design review of the international office in 2010 had resulted in some major changes to some of the design aspects, and a finalisation of some of the technologies to be used in the SKA. A Delta Concept Design Review was called for, which occurred in February 2011, and the panel had allocated a good report, as the SKA was now tied to the base line of the design review. The panel applauded the international team for the approach taken, which followed a system engineering approach initiated by South Africa on the MeerKAT Telescope. The project manager, based in the Cape Town team, was redeployed to Manchester, and was now heading up the international team for the engineering design of the SKA. South Africa’s engineering practices were thus being included in the international project.

All the different components of the technical work were evaluated. Between now and July 2011 there would be a choice as to the country where the new central office would be located. This had first been proposed in the Netherlands, was then moved to Manchester, and now the bidding nations would make their bids to host the office for the next period. That process would be concluded at the end of April.

The Chairperson questioned what this meant.

Ms Loots responded that the final site for the actual telescope was still under bid, internationally, but about 17 participating nations, who were involved in key consortium work, were also allowed to bid to host the international project director and core engineering staff who would be overseeing the development of the project globally, synthesising into the SKA design. The two nations bidding for the site were asked to withdraw from this process, so South Africa and Australia would not participate in the central office bid.

Ms Loots then reported on the SKA pre-construction phase. There was much debate as to what would happen after 2012, when the project was at the stage when most of the R&D was concluded. A two to three year detailed engineering design phase would follow, and the telescope would be built from 2016 onwards. The international office put through a pre-construction plan, which was currently under review, containing proposals for how the infrastructure in the selected country would cater for the building of the instrument. The results of the review would be made public in the Prieska board meeting and support meetings held in Rome at the end of March. The pre-construction document also spoke about establishment of legal entities, and taking ownership of the SKA, and noted that the legal entity would be established by July 2011.

Ms Loots then turned to the MeerKAT telescope. The international community had not believed that Africa could conceptualise and build such a telescope, and also did not believe that Africa had the human capacity to look after it for thirty to fifty years. The MeerKAT was built on a smaller scale to show that Africa could conceptualise and build a larger model. The team recruited at that time had excelled, and had delivered the prototype that was based at Hartbeeshoek. The Department was then given extra money to build a bigger telescope in the Karoo, and, based on the track record that the team had built up internationally, was then given the mandate in 2007 to build a world class instrument. The team had investigated what international communities would do with such an instrument, and this process had now concluded and an international panel would undertake a design review in July 2011. MeerKAT infrastructure would be rolled out until 2012, and on-site preparation would then commence. The then went through the process of understanding what the international community would do with an instrument that it thought would be world class, which process was concluded and in July and an international panel was doing a design review in July. The aim was to roll out the MeerKAT infrastructure between now and 2012 and then immediately after that the telescope preparation on site. The first contract would probably be awarded next year for the antennae structure itself and then the facilities that would be required in terms of construction camps. Immediately after being awarded the bid the international SKA projects infrastructure would start rolling out and the team would be redeployed to SKA infrastructure roll out.

She noted that a number of people were queuing to use the instrument for scientific purposes, and, although this was not included in the original plans, ways of formulating a cellular instrument were now to be found.

Ms Loots reiterated that the site bids would be concluded by 2012, and the final host country would be preparing to host the telescope by then. The human capital development programme would be continued and it was hoped that there would be enough interest in Africa to build a Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) network. The first antennae should be on site in 2013.

Ms Loots then turned to the Human Capital Development Programme. There were 293 grant holders or bursars on the programme, which was close to 10% of the total PhD count in the country. A programme approved by DST was run in five universities and it was hoped that more PhD grants would be awarded. Several universities from across Africa were also getting involved and the Department was helping to set up physics courses in these universities so that they could also start building capacity.

Ms Loots expanded on the schools programme. Two qualified teachers were employed in Carnarvon and the first students to take science and maths sat their matric examinations last year. The Cyber Lab was used extensively.

The African Array consisted of those countries that had satellite communication facilities, previously used by Vodacom but which would soon become redundant because the undersea cables would take over the data that was formerly transported by these systems, so there was a plan to convert those into radio astrology facilities. Ghana was very keen to be involved in this, and it was hoped that Ghana would be putting some money forward for that conversion. The government of Mozambique was also interested and was visiting South Africa next week to see how this could be taken further.

Mr Mmboweni Muofhe, Chief Director: International Corporation Resource, Department of Science and Technology, briefed the Committee on the international lobbying strategy. The aim was to maximise the possibility of Africa securing the bid. The whole process started with an understanding around the funding model for the SKA. It was expected that one-third of the funding would come from the European Union (EU), one-third from the United States of America (USA) and the balance from the host country and other sources. Being a science project, there must also be buy in from prominent scientists. The private sector also needed to be engaged. Since this was an African bid, it was necessary to also mobilise African support. Public awareness campaigns were increased both locally and abroad.

The Chairperson thanked the Department for its presentation, noting that SKA was very attractive.

Ms M Shinn (DA) asked whether Australia was also subject to the re-design. If not, and only South Africa had done this, she wondered if South Africa, should it be unsuccessful in the bid, could then sell the technology for redesign to Australia. She asked who owned the technology

Ms Loots responded that even if South Africa did not win the bid, the benefits to South Africa would still be tremendous. The SKA would be one of the biggest instruments in the world; in certain frequency ranges it would be the biggest, and it would also be the only one in the Southern hemisphere that could observe at certain frequencies. There was still very good world-class science involved, even up to the standard of qualifying for a Nobel science prize. Even if South Africa did not win the bid, many of the team who had worked on it were likely to be head-hunted internationally for pre-construction and construction phases, because of their successes to date. The team had to ensure that it could still deliver MeerKAT, and be resilient enough and make it attractive enough for our engineers to stay in South Africa.

Mr Munsami added it was also necessary to look at the issue from the broader astronomy initiative. The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) was an optical instrument but the MeerKAT would be a radio astronomy instrument, as would a similar system in Namibia, and putting all of those together would result in multi-wavelength astronomy possibilities that would put South Africa firmly on the world astronomy map, and provide significant facilities for South Africa and the whole Africa region, whether or not it eventually won the bid.

Ms Shinn asked whether the redesign had anything to do with the fact that South Africa would, whether or not it won the bid, still have a good stand-alone radio telescope in its own right.

Ms Loots responded that there was a distinction between the SKA project and its design, and the MeerKAT design. She noted that it was the MeerKAT, not the SKA, telescope that had been subject to a redesign. At the time, DST had tried to stay as close as it could to what the SKA design was thought to be, but now, for the first time, there was a baseline design on the table for review. That was very close to the MeerKAT design. MeerKAT had been done specifically to gain a strategic advantage over Australia. Australia was also building what it called a demonstrative telescope, but the antennae were being contracted out to China, who had brought in Chinese crews to build 36 metre high antennae, but who, on completion, had left without benefiting the Australian local industry. Australia chose a quite immature and high-risk technology approach that would come to fruition in time for the SKA. The Department, on the other hand, as part of its risk-driven approach, had already said in 2004 that it wanted to look at whether it would be feasible to build technology similar to that used by Australia into an instrument that would be subjected to the Karoo sun for thirty years. The Department had decided that this technology was too immature. Although the international SKA design had not changed, the strategy had. There was a difference in the approach of the two countries and DST was better aligned with SKA plans. If the DST could get one of the antennae on site before the SKA was deployed, and could build out from there, then antennae in other African countries, even if they looked different, could be linked with optical fibre networks, providing and the most powerful instrument in Africa and the world. MeerKAT itself was the biggest of its type in the world, and would be the only one in the Southern hemisphere. It was now most important to finalise the design, in order to deliver on time. The SKA antennas would eventually have to be built the same as the MeerKAT antennae, because there was no other way it could be done. The redesign did not affect the Australian bid and the Department was hoping that SKA would eventually choose the South African dish as the only design.

Ms Shinn was also concerned about funding, particularly with the European partners, because it was known that the US decadal survey on astronomy had not allocated any funding for SKA this decade, and she was not sure what commitment the European Union had made. If the USA was not going to put any money into this before 2021, then she wondered who would fund the development up until then.

Mr Muofhe responded that the EU could not afford the balance of the shortfall, and there was understandable sensitivity around trying to get the EU to give its backing to either of the bidding countries. DST had worked with the EU in promoting the MeerKAT and ensuring that participation in the MeerKAT project was not only about Africa, but extended further. America had also expressed an interest in working on the MeerKAT. The department tried to ensure that the building of the MeerKAT itself also did some visible work on the African continent, which, in the absence of anything else, could be seen as a signal for readiness. Funding was a big challenge, with USA not coming on board.

He added that the DST and EU had looked at the role that development funding could play in the building of science and technology infrastructure. The role of development of a project of this magnitude in development included building capacity in the rest of the continent. There were already projects being done in the EU as part of development. One was looking at the deployment of broadband in the rest of the African continent, to ensure linkages, and its role in science and research. The Department saw that as another opportunity to ensure much-needed infrastructure for SKA for the bid. In summary, the DST was looking at various forms of funding, to try to ensure that at least the skeleton of building for SKA could emerge.

Ms Shinn asked whether the DST was saying that that this stage there was no financial commitment from either the EU or the USA for the funding of the SKA, and that the only money was what South Africa was putting into MeerKAT, while also trying to get some partners from Africa and Europe.

Ms Loots responded that the decadal survey did not specifically name the SKA as a high priority project, but there were certain other initiatives that were closely aligned to the SKA development path. She mentioned another experiment that was given high priority, whose antennae were very close to the SKA, although they did not have the same name. Certain aspects were being correlated in MeerKAT and there was indirect funding for it. She added that the Technology Development Programme in the USA was quite large and DST was trying to make use of that programme, by suggesting that a South African site should be used for building of certain antennae. Work was ongoing with USA and Canada on that project.

Ms Shinn asked why the SKA had to apply to the National Lottery for funding when it had already been allocated a substantial amount of money, and said she found it strange that such a showcase project should have to take this course.

Ms Loots responded that that happened in 2005, when the Department first needed to build something and was directed to the National Lottery. It was only when the DST understood the key issues that were likely to win the bid that the DST started asking for more money. The first R5 million was claimed against the XDM telescope, and since Cut 70 was now completed, DST decided to claim the next R25 million.

Ms Shinn was also concerned about the gas exploration that has been mooted for the Karoo. She understood there were some behind-the-scenes negotiations between DST and the prospecting companies and would like clarification on that.

Mr Munsami responded on the Shell Gas initiative. He stressed that there was no question of DST being pitted against the Department of Mining, but international lobbying strategy crept in. The DST staff on energy were looking at the implications of the exploration. There was a focus also on the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, which regulated the area’s radio interference and other aspects. The Department would look at whether the exploration was likely to cause any radio frequency conflicts with SKA. A management authority within DST would be ensuring that the legislation and its regulations were adhered to, to protect SKA and the MeerKAT. There were ongoing discussions between the departments.

The Chairperson added that the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act (the Act) gave the Minister of Science and Technology the sole right to regulate that zone, so that no one could interfere with the signals.

Ms Shinn wanted to know whether the final selection of sites would be subject to negotiation if Shell wanted to go ahead with the exploration. She noted that correspondence last year had shown that the possible prospecting areas covered the core of the proposed SKA and MeerKAT site, which must also impact hugely on the SALT. She asked what effect that was likely to have on the bid.

The Chairperson said the Act would not allow that.

Ms Loots added that SKA was registered as an interested and affected party, and she was not aware of any deals with anybody else. The key issue was that while the radio frequency measuring campaign was ongoing in South Africa and Australia, there was nothing happening in the Karoo that required people to carry a cell phone, or do any sort of radio transmitting that could actually impact on that measurement. There could be an immediate threat to the bid if there were very strong radio signals in that area caused by any exploration. She reiterated that the Act was in place to protect against this, and the Minister could intervene if she had to.

The Chairperson said the Minister had already done that. Shell had claimed that it was in consultation with the Minister, who had then released a statement to clarify the position for the public. There had not been any negotiations and she had not had any interaction with Shell.

Mr Munsami added that the Minister had released a press statement to that effect in the previous week.

Ms S Plaatjie (COPE) referred to the human resource summary slide and asked what was being done to recruit disabled people.

Ms Loots responded that she had the full report but unfortunately there were no disabled people.

Ms Plaatjie also asked how DST ensured that most of the schools in the Northern Cape province were also made aware of the programmes of the SKA.

Ms Loots responded that she could forward details of all the schools visited, and said that the DST tried to encourage all the schools to visit the telescope. The socio-economic studies also looked more widely to include such places as Fraserburg and Beaufort West. Some of the towns had been asked to be included in the stakeholder forum, and the Department was trying to make it possible for them to do that.

Ms Plaatjie noted that Mr Muofhe had said that SKA did not want to leave communities behind, and asked if the awareness campaigns included rural communities.

Mr Munsami responded that both for the SKA and science initiatives in general, there was a definite drive towards targeting rural communities. In the previous week the Department had been in Mofokeng where it had reached 5000 school children in a month. The Department also attended North West University on a Saturday, and communicated with students until 16:00. He said that there was outreach to rural areas as a priority.

Mr Muofhe added comments on the focus on astronomy. He said that the DST had had engagements about two years ago with the EU, which had a programme entitled “Universe Awareness”, on how this programmes could be expanded also to South Africa. A project had called for proposals. Some three weeks ago there was an announcement that an allocation of about R19 million had been made, not only for universe awareness in South Africa, but in Africa as a whole, to ensure that a diverse younger generation was made aware of astronomy.

Ms H Line (ANC) referred to the slide ‘Proudly South African’, the Northern Cape. She noted and asked the Department to expand on the lack of suitably qualified individuals, including artisans and technicians, and a need for a local training centre.

Ms Loots responded that DST was working with the communities on proposals to find funding to fund their own training centres. The idea was to train plumbers, electricians and bricklayers who could eventually build houses in the community, rather than focusing only on the telescope. Other skills would be needed, and the promoters were working very hard to get these courses ready.

Ms Line noted that the Cyber Lab was launched at Carnarvon High School, which was in a predominantly Afrikaans speaking area. She noted that the children, in order to benefit fully from this and to have a competitive advantage, would need to be taught in English, and she wondered if there were plans to change their education to the English medium.

Ms Loots responded that the schools taught in Afrikaans, but the SKA lessons were in English, out of school time. She noted that if the children were to be prepared properly to compete internationally, they would have to be fluent in English. SKA also prepared bridging courses, where needed, in English for some students, and the same bridging courses could also be used in other African countries.

Ms Line noted that Mr Muofhe had said that SKA did not want to leave communities behind. She said that the whole community was immensely proud when the Cyber Lab was launched, and this encouraged the community’s children to excel in maths and science. She asked that the Department should continue to practise what it preached.

Ms P Mocumi (ANC) asked to be provided with full documents, and added that pagination would have been helpful.

Mr Munsami noted her comment, but noted that if the pictures had been included, the document would have been too large to e-mail.

Mr M Nonkonyana (ANC) expressed appreciation for a wonderful presentation, and noted that the presenters had understood and been sensitive to the democratic transformation issues that concerned the Committee. He asked who benefited from the bursaries.

Mr Munsami responded that the launch targeted a specific stakeholder group, which was based on the decision of the schools. He noted that it had been a challenge in the past to get black African students to do science and engineering. That had to start at the school level. SKA, together with the National Research Foundation (NRF) had started a schools programme and hopefully, in years to come, would see more black tertiary students in science and engineering.

Ms Loots commented that the first bursaries issued were for PhDs, and although no black PhD could then be found, that started to turn around in 2009, and the demographics were now better.

Mr Munsami added that DST had started looking at other initiatives. The National Astronomy Science and Space (NASS) programme was run at UCT, and a lot of African students already participated in that. The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) was proving useful. This programme was so successful that international institutions snapped up the students.

The Chairperson said when SKA first came to present to Parliament, much was said about human capital development (HCD) and many disadvantaged students were being given the opportunity to learn and talk about science. The former President of the NRF had complained at one point that of the 23 students sponsored by the HCD programme, 19 were white, three were from other African countries, with only one black South African. He had felt that this sponsorship was not promoting the correct issues. He cautioned the DST that it should not separate out the foreign black students from South African black students, to avoid misperceptions, and to ensure that South Africans benefited. He noted that the slide indicating the profile was not included in the e-mailed version, and asked why.

Ms Loots responded that she was waiting for the information, and only received it on Monday morning after e-mailing the document.

The Chairperson noted that the Committee would be doing an oversight tour to the SKA site and asked for assurance that it would see what had been presented here.

The Chairperson noted the allusion to the World Cup and asked if the SKA teams had consulted the 2010 World Cup Soccer teams on the best way to drive the issues. He pointed out that there was little time left before 2012.

Mr Muofhe responded that the Department was taking in experiences. Certain people had been identified who could identify some of the pitfalls, but that was not followed up. DST had identified those who could be used as SKA ambassadors, including those from academia, business and sport, who could promote SKA at every opportunity.

Ms Shinn as interested in the network through Africa, and, because communication was a huge challenge, wanted to know what commitment there was from the African partners to help fund this and to motivate, with their own governments, the rapid roll out of communication network to facilitate the linking of the various telescopes.

Ms Loots responded that there was a strategy. The next step for the site selection group was to formulate a working plan for a data transfer network for the SKA, once it was built. The Cyber Team was working with all the African partner countries to create feasible plans, showing their governments’ commitment to investment that would allow the data transfer network to happen. The SKA team wanted, with the African network, to begin by using a system currently being used by the international communities for the international VLBI network, as South Africa had the only Southern hemisphere telescope that participated in that work. NASA’s international website published the computing script that needed to be run for certain VLBI experiments, in which telescopes from around the world were used to simultaneously investigate a specific object and download the information on hard disks, then run it at a particular time. The data recorded on the hard disks was shipped to Netherlands, where the information was reworked into real science, and this was used to investigate matters such as movement of continents and other issues.

The SKA team wanted to establish similar capacity in African countries, to create an African VLBI network. Once the instruments were set up it would be possible to start linking the whole African network into the international realm, and DST was currently investigating what could be done with the information that was gathered.

Ms Loots assured the Committee that there was definitely political buy in from other African partners. DST was working very hard to ensure that there was sufficient momentum to get the information needed for the RFI campaign. DST was serious about establishing astronomy capacity in those countries. It had also considered converting the largest instruments in the country, that were owned by industry, into the radio astronomy facility, as was done with Hartbeeshoek.

She further noted that the DST had visited Ghana and was trying to put together a budget illustrating the costs of the conversion and the subsequent operations. In all countries, these facilities would be decommissioned. DST wanted to keep skills capacity, by having engineers and technicians on those sites, and further to run training programmes to develop capacity in those countries, so they could convert instruments in turn, using their own governments’ funding. Vodafone was interested in being involved in Ghana, as it was interested in the tourist potential, and was pushing for funding from that country’s government, combined with expertise from South Africa.

Ms Shinn asked why only three of the five research chairs had been filled.

Mr Munsami explained that the research chairs were being filled on a continuous basis. A research chair was awarded to an institution, and it was then that institution’s responsibility to find an expert. Three had found their experts but the other two had not yet found the right level of expertise to fill their chairs.

Ms Plaatjie was not comfortable with the DST response on community involvement, pointing out that more needed to be done to sell SKA to the communities. This could be something as simple as the World Cup initiatives of wearing South African colours.

The DST thanked her for her comment.

Ms Mocumi asked whether there had been interaction with the target audiences of decision makers, the science community and the private sector, and whether there had been any response.

Mr Muofhe said this had been done and would continue. Ms Loots had outlined the projects with scientific partners, which indicated that the marketing of the DST’s scientific capability had been successful. There were a number of private sector partners in the project, and there were also useful engagements with Nokia, who had identified Africa as a land of opportunity. There had been engagement with a USA congressman, and South African scientific ability had been addressed in the European Parliament. The American Association of Black Physicists was passionate about the African bid. All this engagement would continue.

Ms Mocumi also asked the criterion used to select Carnarvon High School.

Ms Loots responded that Carnarvon was originally the host town for the project team, with the DST offices situated nearby. The DST had already happened to have a suitable building and had managed also to get sponsorship for the laboratory there.

The Chairperson noted that the 62nd International Astrological Conference was hosted in Africa this year and asked if DST was hoping to use this to mobilise more support for SKA, and, if so, what lobbying was planned.

Mr Munsami explained that the Department of Trade and Industry (dti) was responsible, in terms of the State Affairs Act, for the space sector policy and industrial development of the space sector, whereas DST was responsible for implementation and strategy. The IAC was essentially showcasing industrial potential, so it was agreed that dti would be the lead department, supported by DST, and discussions were already being held on how best to showcase the SKA.

The Chairperson noted that the Conference of Parties (COP17) on Climate Change was being hosted in Durban later in the year, and asked if this could be used to boost the bid.

Mr Munsami said that DST had a committee that was looking at how its projects could be showcased, including those on climate change, renewable energy, and solar and wind energy, and although SKA was not yet linked to this, DST would consider doing so.

The Chairperson noted that no economic spin-offs had been mentioned.

Ms Loots responded that the technologies developed for the telescope had considerable potential for spin off into other industries was considerable. An amplifier could be used by the cell phone industry, the medical industry, as could some of the computer facilities.

The Chairperson explained that if South Africa developed its satellite technology this would also result in technical communications benefits, as well as agricultural benefits, which would in turn promote other technology, and enquired what other benefits SKA could provide to humanity, apart from discovering more about the universe.

Ms Loots responded that the easy answer lay in such components as amplifiers and computer chips that could be incorporated into everyday items like digital cameras and laptops. However, it was more difficult to quantify the economic spin offs, like developments in computer processing, new mining techniques and remote sensing aids that could promote independent living for elderly people living, monitoring their safety.
The SKA team also wanted to start looking at the potential use of the technologies of this project for other big challenges in South Africa, including issues around the Space Agency solar programme, computing facilities for mine information and data centres. The facility that the Team would need would be bigger than any currently in South Africa.

The Chairperson said if DST wanted to grow a project of this size it was very important to start with the cost benefit analysis. He noted that SALT was situated in the Southern hemisphere and he enquired if there had been something similar to SKA in the Northern hemisphere, and, if so, what lessons had been learnt. He also enquired why, if SKA was superior to SALT, the DST had not begun with SKA.

Ms Loots said that the SALT telescope worked in a different frequency and the SKA was to be many orders of magnitude bigger than the SALT telescope. The requirement for data processing on the SKA was bigger than any other instrument in the world. Different science could be done with this instrument. The SALT telescope could do a certain observation and get certain types of information. However, if the same observation were to be done with MeerKAT or SKA, different but complementary information would be retrieved. If the MeerKAT could be built to do multi wavelength astronomy, it would definitely find things that had not been found to date, as nowhere else in the world had this astronomy been used for these objects. South Africa had a very real geographic advantage so it could become a key player in mathematics and astronomy of the future. She summarised that SALT was much smaller than the MeerKAT or the SKA and used different science drivers.

Mr Munsami attempted to link the technical benefits with the economic benefits. He noted that a study had been done by the Organisation of Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) on what constituted knowledge economy. The South African context focused on knowledge generation, funding of R&D, and how to commercialise that knowledge. The ICT backbone was critical. Another study had shown that increasing connectivity by 10% resulted in a 1% increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). There was thus a direct link between ICT and economic growth. The SKA would bring additional connectivity capacity for global communities.

Mr Munsami expanded on the comment by Ms Loots, saying that SALT was an optical telescope, and would essentially take a static picture of the night sky, whereas radio astronomy would sense active signals coming from the universe. He said that the size and cost of the instrument made it more viable for DST to begin with the SALT.

The Chairperson said that, now the Committee had been shown how SKA was superior, he wondered why the money put into SALT had not instead been put directly to SKA.

Mr Munsami said that the National Research Development Strategy looked at overall astronomical advantage and both SALT and SKA were needed for that.

The Chairperson thanked the presenters for the information that they had provided, which would assist the Committee in its site visits, and suggested that DST put together some literature on the project.

The meeting was adjourned.


  • We don't have attendance info for this committee meeting

Download as PDF

You can download this page as a PDF using your browser's print functionality. Click on the "Print" button below and select the "PDF" option under destinations/printers.

See detailed instructions for your browser here.

Share this page: