The Department of Science and Technology (DST) said the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) would be the largest radio telescope ever built and would dominate radio astronomy for decades. It represented frontier science in fundamental physics and astronomy. The essential objective was to look farther and farther back in time up to the origin of the universe. Collectively, if each of the surface areas of the dishes were added, tit formed a square kilometre of the receiving area. The dishes were distributed, but collectively it worked as a single facility. The amount of data that would come out of the configuration, was about ten times the current global internet traffic and in other configurations, the amount of data could go up to 100 times the global internet traffic.
A precursor to the SKA was the MeerKAT and SKA Phase one would essentially include the MeerKAT (64 dishes) plus 190 dishes and the ASKAP (60 dishes) in Australia. Phase one would be completed around 2020 and in the interim pre-design construction for SKA Pahse two would be completed in 2016. Construction of phase two would begin in 2023 and it would entail the construction of 3 000 single dishes in South Africa and across the African continent.
The large amounts of data to be processed pushed the digitisation of the dish signal to reduce the data volume. The circuit board design, assembly and testing were being done in South Africa. A breakdown of the grants showed that 597 grants had been awarded since 2005 from studies at Further and Training Colleges to Research Chair levels.
The SKA project refocused their efforts on the African continent and created Radio Astronomy Observatories as an extension of the existing global Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (VLBI). The proposal was to modify existing but redundant dishes previously utilised for satellite telecommunication until phase two of the SKA project kicked off post 2020. The Big Data Africa (BDA) Programme created a critical mass of expertise and infrastructure to enable Big Data research and application. The data volumes would grow exponentially from the MeerKAT to SKA Phase two and international collaborations were formed to unlock the data challenge. SKA and fracking needed to co-exist, but there was a need for buffer zones around astronomy reserves. There should be concurrence from the Minister on the license to explore and exploit potential shale gas reserves.
The Committee discussed the human capital development prospects the MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) and Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Telescope projects had extensively. The concerns raised focused on whether South Africa would be able to produce enough engineers to see the project to its completion. The development of the immediate communities surrounding the development site was also explored. The shortages of skills ion the surrounding areas, as well as youth participation in the scientific aspects of the projects were discussed. Committee members queried whether the Department had sufficient funding to sustain the assistance given to undergraduate and postgraduate students. The Department shared their contingency plans and shared that the next meeting would focus extensively on the human capital development initiatives. There was some discussion on how the uninterrupted power supply (UPS) to the site was maintained and what the effect on the community was in terms of radiofrequency.
The Chairperson welcomed everyone to the meeting and gave over for the presentation.
Briefing by Department of Science and Technology (DST) on the SKA and MeerKAT projects
Dr Val Munsami, Chief Specialist: Astronomy, DST, said the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) addressed infrastructure, skills and expertise and wealth creation in the knowledge economy to make Africa the next great business destination. Science and technology was a tool for policy makers and SKA Africa attracted and trained the best young people. The project strengthened universities, reversed the brain drain, developed expertise and know-how in industry and created a critical mass of skills in cutting edge technologies, e.g. Big Data. The SKA and MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) projects were endorsed by the African Union Heads of State before the final bidding process and there had been a resolution by the European Parliament in support of the African bid and the subsequent initiative called the Africa Europe Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP) stakeholder forum came from that resolution. The SKA would be the largest radio telescope ever built and would dominate radio astronomy for decades. It represented frontier science in fundamental physics and astronomy. In terms of the evolution of the universe it would answer the fundamental questions of what ‘dark energy’ and what ‘dark matter was’. It would push the boundaries of technology, because only 4% of the universe was currently understood.
Dr Munsami gave an overview of what the aim of the telescope was and said the essential objective was to look farther and farther back in time up to the origin of the universe. The limiting factor was the sensitivity of the telescope and that was the reason for the big instruments. He showed picture illustrations of single dish telescopes and array telescopes and said the SKA was an array of single dish antennas that were linked. Collectively, if each of the surface areas of the dishes were added, tit formed a square kilometre of the receiving area. The dishes were distributed, but collectively it worked as a single facility. The amount of data that would come out of the configuration, was about ten times the current global internet traffic and in other configurations, the amount of data could go up to 100 times the global internet traffic.
Population density was the most important consideration when the SKA host site was considered, because low density implied low radiofrequency interference. The Northern Cape only contained about 2% of the South African population and there was a mound that provided protection from radiofrequency interference. The Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act (AGA) was promulgated in 2007 and the Act was meant to protect and preserve these astronomy facilities from radiofrequency and optical interference. The African partner countries were Ghana, Namibia, Kenya, Madagascar, Botswana, Mauritius, Zambia and Mozambique. The SKA organisation had eleven member countries and the United States and South Korea were attending as observers.
A precursors to the SKA was the MeerKAT and SKA Phase one would essentially include the MeerKAT (64 dishes) plus 190 dishes and the ASKAP (60 dishes) in Australia. Phase one would be completed around 2020 and in the interim pre-design construction for SKA Pahse two would be completed in 2016. Construction of phase two would begin in 2023 and it would entail the construction of 3 000 single dishes in South Africa and across the African continent. The MeerKAT would be the largest array radio telescope before the SKA and over 200 engineers and scientists were directly employed by the project office. The Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (PICC) listed SKA and the MeerKAT as Strategic Infrastructure Project (SIP) 16 and the first dish was launched in March 2014. 75% of the components that went into the dish were locally manufactured. A site complex had been erected, as well as the Karoo Array Processing Building (KAPB) which would host the power supply and the produced data.
The large amounts of data to be processed pushed the digitisation of the dish signal to reduce the data volume. The circuit board design, assembly and testing were being done in South Africa. Dr Munsami showed the international SKA work packages and illustrated the extent of the human capital development initiatives of the projects. A breakdown of the grants showed that 597 grants had been awarded since 2005 from studies at Further and Training Colleges to Research Chair levels. There was a pipeline created that showed the throughput rate of the levels of education. There was only one high school in Carnarvon that offered mathematics and science and it serviced the whole district. Through collaboration with Teach SA the SKA project office worked with teachers to help teach mathematics and science at the school. There was a commitment to use local capacity and it consisted of on the job training. Community projects included the establishment of a community knowledge centre, a SKA tourism/science visitor centre, a contractor’s empowerment programme and the e-school initiative.
The SKA project refocused their efforts on the African continent and created Radio Astronomy Observatories as an extension of the existing global Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (VLBI). The proposal was to modify existing but redundant dishes previously utilised for satellite telecommunication until phase two of the SKA project kicked off post 2020. The Big Data Africa (BDA) Programme created a critical mass of expertise and infrastructure to enable Big Data research and application. The data volumes would grow exponentially from the MeerKAT to SKA Phase two and international collaborations were formed to unlock the data challenge. An overview of the accrued benefits showed the job opportunities created the total contribution to emerging contractors and the total cost for job opportunities. SKA and fracking needed to co-exist, but there was a need for buffer zones around astronomy reserves. There should be concurrence from the Minister on the license to explore and exploit potential shale gas reserves.
The Chairperson said his project not only transformed South Africa, but it also showed the country’s purpose in the world. It also showed how the country could capacitate itself to compete in the global arena. It was a very good presentation and the Committee would be ambassadors of this project.
Dr A Lotriet (DA) said it would be very good if the Committee was able to visit the different sites. Germany was included as a participating country, but it was reported earlier that it had withdrew from the project. Did this withdrawal have any effect on the project? There were delays in the MeerKAT projects and it was reported that the delays were due to the problems experienced when sourcing for expertise and products locally. She asked if the delays would impact on the timeline for delivery. The Minister had referred to the shortage of engineers in the country. There were some concerns in terms of the timeline, because there may be enough engineers now, but she wanted to know if there would be enough engineers in the pipeline to take the project to its completion. She asked what was being done to actually encourage the kind of engineers needed for this project. Although the area was sparsely populated, she asked what the effect on the population was in terms of cellular phone reception and if it had a negative impact on their lives. She asked what was being done to maintain the continuous flow of electricity, especially in light of the country’s power problems.
Dr Bernie Fanaroff, SKA Project Director, said the Ministry of Education and Research in Germany gave notice of their withdrawal from the SKA Board in July 2015. Germany had been represented on the Board both by the Ministry and the Max Planck Foundation. The Foundation had indicated that they would like Germany to continue as a member country and was currently negotiating with the Ministry and the German government about funding. The sense was that it was an internal problem within the Ministry and once the problems had been addressed, they would rejoin the organisation. The MeerKAT timelines were very strict and the contract was given to a South African company named Stratosat, which was an affiliation of the Gesat.com Company in Germany. The detailed design was being done by Gestat.com and the conceptual design was done in South Africa. There had been stresses between the Department and Gesat.com, but the pressure was being kept on them. One of the problems Gesat.com had was the fact that South African companies were brought on board, because 75% of the value had to be spent in South Africa. They underestimated the technology transfer that was necessary and there had been assurances by made to catch up with the scheduled timeline by 2015. Calculations were done for the human capital programme to see how many scientists and engineers would be needed for the MeerKAT and SKA projects in the long term. The bursary programme was based on those calculations, but there would be leakage of trained engineers to other departments and sectors. Based on the expected leakage, the calculations were adjusted to accommodate those gaps and it was encouraging to see that most of the students stuck with the program. The Department, with the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (PICC) was working with the Departments of Economic Development and Higher Education on the skills profiles that would be required for the Strategic Infrastructure Projects (SIP). The Department was confident that there would be enough engineers and scientists to complete this project. The uninterruptable power supply (UPS) was in place if the lines go down or if there was a drop in voltage. Because SKA was a national key point, the project got preferential provision of power. A new power line had been built from Carnarvon to the site and no problems were anticipated. Lightning hitting the line was what would damage the telescope and the UPS would kick in to smooth out the spikes or dips in power supply such a hit would cause.
Dr Munsami said there were three different protection levels to the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act (AGA). The areas were the core (10km), the central astronomy advantage areas (70km to 80km) and the coordinated advantage areas (300km) to which different protection levels were applied. Cellular phone coverage did have an effect on the telescopes, and in collaboration with Vodacom and MTN, an alternative technology solution had been offered. There was a platform on a different frequency range that could be used, but it still connected to national coverage. The affected parties in the area would be offered the alternative solution.
Ms L Maseko (ANC) asked what the racial breakdown of the bursary and grant recipients was, how many applications were received, and what the qualification criteria was. The Department was not very well funded and she asked if there was enough money available to sustain these grants and bursaries. She asked where the assembly point was and what ‘fracking’ was. The design hub was in the UK and she asked if it was because of the lack of specialised experts in the host countries.
Dr Fanaroff said there were about 600 grants and about 90 of those grants had been awarded to students from other African countries. The rest of the grants were awarded to South African students of which approximately 60% were black. When the programme was started, it was thought that only masters, doctoral and post-doctoral students would be trained. There were not enough applicants for those bursaries to be extended to black students and the programme was then extended to undergraduate studies. In the undergraduate programme, the targeted population was almost 100% black African students to move them up the pipeline to post-doctoral studies. It had been very difficult to get students directly into the master’s and doctorate programmes, because black African students seldom studied in the field of digital signal processing and this pipeline needed to be created. It had also been difficult to find senior electronic engineers and the best students from the bursary programme would be taken into the SKA Office to create a career path to become senior electronic engineers. The basic premise was the more money that was invested into the programme; the more students would be able to participate. At the beginning of the programme in 2005, advertising was done through the universities. Subsequently, advertising was done on the National Research Foundation (NRF) website and there was a drop in the number of applications. From this year onward, the universities would be used again, because it guaranteed more interest. The programme was also extended, because students from the Karoo struggled to gain acceptance into universities, because of the weak mathematics and science teaching structure. The Department gave bursaries to 42 students from Carnarvon and the surrounding towns to train as artisans at a Further Education and Training (FET) College in Kimberly. A commitment had been made to employ 16 on completion of employment in addition to three already employed. The objective was to train 300 people from the area over the next few years as technicians and artisans. There had been a bidding process five years ago which awarded the head office to Britain. Australia and South Africa both decided not participate in the bidding process to give other countries a chance to ‘get something from SKA’. In 2015 there would be a new bidding process and it was not clear where the new head office would be. The design hub was in the UK as a sort of political or strategic move and South Africa played a big role in all of the design packages. South Africa tried to be careful to not dominate every single aspect of the SKA project. It had been internationally said that some of the best engineers and scientist on the SKA project were South African.
Dr Thomas Auf der Heyde, Deputy Director-General: Research Development and Support, DST, said the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) supported less than a quarter of all undergraduate students. DST was the biggest single source of funding for postgraduate students and this constituted less than 5% of all honours students, less than 10% of all masters’ students and less than 20% of all doctoral students. This was not sustainable levels of public support and it was largely students from a middle class background with familial support in addition to the bursaries they got from DST that could really afford to study post undergraduate level. Treasury had been really receptive to the engagements in terms of student funding and next year an additional R400 million would be added to the Department’s baseline allocation for human capital development. Treasury understood DST’s argument that most students, especially from working class backgrounds, could not afford to do doctoral studies and would rather opt to enter the job market with a master’s degree.
Dr Munsami said there was a potential for natural gas in the Karoo below the shale rock. The intention was to drill through the rock and to push in fluid at high pressures. The aim was to ‘fracture’ the rock and to capture the gas that escaped. The problem with these types of technologies was that it created radiofrequency interference that interfered with the dish and the machinery used in fracking needed to be limited.
Mr M Kekana (ANC) asked how many companies were involved, what their Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) statuses were, and he asked if the Committee could be provided with a list of the approved companies with their areas of specialisation. He asked how many community knowledge centres the Department had countrywide and in which areas these centres were. He asked how far the Department was on their engagement with the Department of Basic Education (DBE) in the promotion of mathematics and science. He said the Department should work on equalising the gender parity, because female participation was too low. He asked for a detailed racial breakdown of the grant recipients, when the talks on the funding commitments would commence and what the other funding commitments member countries had.
Dr Fanaroff said one third of the South African students were women and although it was not good enough, it was a better ratio found in most overseas countries. Many of the managers in the SKA office were female and the project wanted to incorporate more women. The list of companies would be provided to the Committee. Big open national tenders were run according to the NRF’s supply chain management policy. It specified points for BEE qualifications and functional qualifications according to standard Treasury regulations. It was specified that local contractors should be contracted and the Department was on a programme to train about nineteen small contactor companies around the Karoo. The contract to upgrade the road would be awarded soon and as much of the work as possible would be contracted locally. Skill had been an issue when appointing local people and socio-economic surveys were conducted in 2007 and 2009. The surveys showed the high rate of unemployment and slow economic growth pushed skilled people to move to bigger cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg for better opportunities. When contractors were required to get skilled people from the local area they found it very difficult and that was why the emphasis had been on the development of artisans and technicians locally. One of the leading building contractors company in Carnarvon was run by a woman and the ‘Working for Water Programme’, once it was funded would be run by a woman and would employ mostly women. The funding talks had been ongoing for years. The head office people would be visiting each member country to have informal discussions on what each country was prepared to invest. After the informal discussions, the funding would be negotiated at the Board level and it would be finalised toward mid-2015. The first phase would set out a treaty between the governments of the member countries on the funding requirements and the second phase could not be negotiated until the cost of the second phase had been determined.
Dr Auf der Heyde said the Department supported 33 science centres around the country in a range of different ways and this community knowledge centre was similar to a science centre. Science centres differed in some aspects, but most were involved in supporting basic education activities on different platforms for teachers and learners to use facilities not available at schools. The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Sutherland also had a local community science and knowledge centre similar to the centre in Carnarvon. The Department could in future give a presentation on the Department’s science outreach activities. The Cofimvaba project was a pilot project on how technology could be used to improve the quality of life in rural areas across a number of sectors including schooling and learning. In this project, the Department was working closely with DBE and the Eastern Cape Department of Education to finalise plans around the funding of the science centres. The Department earmarked R11 million to build the Cofimvaba science centre and regular engagement with DBE centered on the sustainable development of the centre. The Department would present extensively on human capital initiatives, as well as on transformation and equity issues as it related to the programmes of DST at the next Committee meeting. At the undergraduate level, 80% of enrolment was by black students and the breakdown of that statistic would be provided to the Committee. At postgraduate level that statistic dropped significantly and an overview of the initiatives the Department developed to address this matter would be presented to the Committee. There were a number of reasons for this statistic, but preliminary guesses would be financial assistance and the level of State support and studies were undertaken to understand the racial demographics.
Mr C Mathale (ANC) agreed that the Committee should take some time to visit the actual sites of the projects to get a better understanding of the presentation. He commended the work done by the Department.
The Chairperson asked that the concept of ‘dark energy’ be explained.
Dr Fanaroff said the universe started as a small hot point 14 000 million years ago. It expanded very quickly and it got colder. After approximately 200 000 years, it got cold enough to form hydrogen gas. As the universe expanded further, eventually the lumps of hydrogen gas, together with dark energy collapsed under their own weight and became compressed until it started burning helium as the sun did. The first stars were much bigger than the sun, they started shining in the early universe and ionised all the cold gas. About ten years ago, scientists discovered that the universe expansion was not slowing down and it was ‘dark energy’ that pushed the expansion. It was called ‘dark energy’, because it was not visible. The same principle applied to ‘dark matter’, which was also not visible, but was present because of the gravitational effect.
Dr Fanaroff said there was a lot more information available to the Committee from the website and the Committee should indicate whether they would be interested to receive the quarterly newsletter. The Big Data industry was a new industry and it was estimated that by 2020 it would be a global industry worth thousands of billions of dollars. It was not an industry with high entry barriers and South Africa was well placed to play a leading role. South Africa deserved at least 20% of the trillion dollar Big Data industry.
The Chairperson said it was important that the Committee really commit to visiting the sites and he appreciated the efforts the Department was putting into equalising the opportunities for youth in the country.
The Chairperson thanked everyone and the meeting was adjourned.
- PC Sci: Department of Science and Technology on Square Kilometer Array Telescope & MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) projects 1
- PC Sci: Department of Science and Technology on Square Kilometer Array Telescope & MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) projects 2
- PC Sci: Update on Square Kilometre Array Telescope and MeerKAT projects 2
- PC Sci: Update on Square Kilometre Array Telescope and MeerKAT projects 1
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