SKA/MeerKAT projects: SKA Office update

Science and Technology

31 May 2017
Chairperson: Ms L Maseko (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee was briefed by the Square Kilometre Array SA/MeerKat Project which was an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope. In March 2017, a 32-antenna array had been completed and 64 antenna array was anticipated for completion by March 2018.

Members enquired about whether there was radio interference when aircraft were flying in the area. It was explained that there had been discussions with the Civil Aviation Authority on this very point and if it were a scheduled flight and it was up high enough there were no problems. Members raised concern about cyber security; and asked if access to telecommunications by local communities had been sorted out.
Members were pleased to hear that the communities in the area, especially in Carnarvon, were taken care of, especially with regard to Wi-Fi because putting directional antennae in their houses was being investigated. Big Data was now one of the core projects being undertaken by MeerKat, especially to develop skills in this area. South Africa basically carried other African states in this endeavour because SA was the only state that paid membership fees.

Meeting report

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA)/MeerKat Projects briefing

Dr Rob Adam, Managing Director SKA South Africa said the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) mega-project was an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope. The mandate of the SKA organisation was to develop the cost and design of the SKA Telescope. MeerKat progress to date showed that:

  • By June 2016, a 16-antenna array had been completed;

  • March 2017, a 32-antenna array had been completed; and

  • By March 2018, it was anticipated that a 64-antenna array would have been completed.

The MeerKat Science Programme, among others, envisaged two key issues:

  1. 64 dishes to be operational by April 2018 and

  2. Eventually to be integrated into the SKA telescope.

The SKA SA Human Capital Develop Programme was a schools and artisan programme in local communities. One of them was Carnarvon Primary School, which had two Teach South Africa (SA) graduates placed at Carnarvon Primary School (CPS) to teach numeracy and literacy. A Teacher Development Programme in mathematics and literacy has been established with the University of Cape Town. Five students qualified as artisans in 2016/17, and 72 FET (Further Education and Training) students were funded by SKA in the Northern Cape since 2011.

With regard to the SKA SA local and indigenous communities, 219 farmers and farmworkers were provided with fixed broadband connectivity via satellite since December 2015. The SAN Council Agreement allowed for the promotion and protection of SAN culture and heritage.

(See attached report)

Mr C Mothale (ANC) asked if there were a relationship with Systems Automation and Management South Africa (SAMSA).

Dr Adam replied that he did not think one could collaborate with them. The SKA SA project had started a relationship with the African Space Strategy, which also required what was called the African Research Cloud that was the computing system SA was going to invest in and there was a partnership in using that same computing platform.

Mr Mothale asked to what extent aeroplanes disturbed or polluted the environment in which the satellite frequency radiated.

Dr Adam replied that there have been discussions with the Civil Aviation Authority on this very point. The thing is, if it was a scheduled flight and it was up high enough, one could manage this. If there was a flight every minute, that would be a problem. Regular flights could be managed. This was possible because one knew when the flights were coming. Problems could occur when unscheduled flights by small aircraft took place as they might get close enough to damage receivers. If flights went over 3000 feet there was not much of a chance to damage the instrument; and the data that was picked up, one knew what it was.

Mr Mothale asked how communities in the area received this information because they were being introduced to something different and better.

Dr Adam said that it was not just the SAN peoples who were there; there was a large black community in that area, those were not San, so this had to be taken into account as well. Outside of that area there was a bursary programme which was open to anybody for university purposes. For schools, there was only support for the schools in that area, such as Carnarvon.

Dr A Lotriet (DA) asked for an indication of future operational costs and challenges that the project foresaw.

Dr Adam replied that at the moment there were enough resources to operate with, beyond that did he not know. There were ongoing discussions with National Treasury so they were not worried about it.

Dr Lotriet asked if access to telecommunications by local communities had been sorted out.

Dr Adam said that one had to face up to the fact that technologies changed. Local communities had been promised that roughly on a three-year cycle they would be given what they needed. When they asked for Wi-Fi, the SKA SA project was looking at putting directional antennae in their houses. It should be understood that before the project came there was very little anyway.

Dr Lotriet asked if the issue of cyber security and the Big Data being used was being looked at.

Dr Adam said the project was looking into cyber security as it was a very serious concern.

Ms C King (DA) said from 2013 to 2016 the project had only constructed 32 dishes. She asked if the balance would be completed before March 2018.

Dr Adam replied in the affirmative. In getting up to the correct quality of the dishes there had been discussions with suppliers and issues had been ironed out a year and a half back; Now 46 or 47 dishes had already been lifted into the full quota of 64 dishes. 57 pedestals (on which dishes sit) had been erected. They were not on a critical path with regard to the dishes at the moment. Things were looking okay as a ball park.

Mr Khutso Ngoasheng, Manager: Science Processing, said that as a buffer to the March deadline the Project had an internal litmus test in September, then another one in December, then a rollout to the end of March. They had realised that by having shorter milestones they were able to assess the programme, so there was confidence about achieving the March 2018 timeline.

Ms King asked what the actual revised total cost of the SKA SA Project was, and how much had been spent on the project so far.

Dr Adam replied that they were in discussions at the moment about the overall cost cap. The International community had put in a 674 million Euros cost cap on SK1 construction. So, there was an attempt to get the projects into that 674 million. He thought it was possible to achieve this.

Ms King asked if costs could be broken down into costs for SA and costs for Australia.

Dr Adam said that that had not been decided yet, as it was part of treaty discussions. However, it looked like SA would contribute 14% of 674 million Euros, as was the case with Australia.

Ms King asked how much of total cost had been available in actual cents so far in SA, and how much of it had been for pledges.

Dr Adam said the MeerKat project cost in total about R2.2 billion, then the running cost of SK1 was round about 10% of capital cost per annum. One also had to add MeerKat on to the 674 million Euros. One was then looking at about 900 million Euros all together. As was said none of this had been agreed upon as yet, but this looked like the way it was going.

Ms King said projects by their nature experienced challenges, what challenges were anticipated in the future on this project.
Ms King had noticed a slight decrease in the award of bursaries in 2016. She asked why this had happened.

Dr Adam said there was an affirmative action programme which had gender specific KPIs, and he had signed off on a call for proposals two days ago for the programme. One had to understand that at the moment there were fewer women in the physical sciences than men.

Ms King said she had noticed that the gender ratio was a bit skewed in favour of males; awarding 257 women bursaries; 27.25 women; was there any plan to increase women?

Mr N Koornhof (ANC) asked what the SKA project was doing in the schools and in communities and areas like Carnarvon. There was a concept of twinning schools. One could create tourism and kids could do other things like join debating societies or collaborate on many other activities.

Dr Adam said that the twinning of schools was a good idea, but he was not sure whether they could lead on that initiative given the fact that they were just a project. But if others took the lead they could support it.

Mr Koornhof asked on whose budget the fencing of the 132 000 hectares would come because one does not want to come into conflict with agriculture.

Dr Adam responded ultimately it would be for the account of the International Treaty Organisation because they were paying US to manage the site. SA would be paid from the 10% - operating costs – to manage the site.

Mr Koornhof asked if there were any conflicts around the agreements with Agri SA and SANParks.

Dr Adam said there were different ways to go here, one could lease the farm land back to farmers with the implication that if any breaches of the AGA Act were undertaken then the right to farm there would be taken away – that would be a difficult one to manage. He suspected that the co-operation of the farmers would go around this Project’s contributions to the remaining farmers in the area. Agreements with SANParks had not been finalised as yet.

Mr Koornhof asked if there were potential for tourism maybe beyond the 132 000 hectares (on periphery) because one could open lodges or allow people to learn more about Space. Many people from Europe wanted to come to South Africa just to escape. He asked if this would be allowed.

Dr Adam said that it could be done. Talks with SANParks could be had about this.

Mr Koornhof asked about the rollout of the African VLBI Network (AVN), and if various telescopes would talk to each other. He asked further if it would give opportunities in astronomy to other countries involved.

Ms Anita Loots, Head: Africa Planning SKA-SA replied that the Africa Network Project had two goals. One was to prepare and support partner countries in the bid to be ready to host SKA phase 2 stations. There was clarity that ex-pats were not wanted to fly in to maintain stations on African soil. SA wanted to do it itself. Also, a big part of this was to focus on governance and science technology funding in Africa working very closely with governments to make sure the country established the right institutes to be able to employ scientists and engineers to work on the SKA. Funding was being secured from National Treasury to pay these people’s salaries. One had to make sure one was in with the right networks to enable the maintenance of telescopes that were built on the African continent.

Ms Loots said the second part would take at least 10 years. So, for most of the countries the interventions would be 10 year interventions with a very strong Human Capital Development programme.

The African VLBI Network (AVN) would be working in three different modes. One was where a country for 30% could design its own programme, make their own partnerships and run their own science programme. The 2nd mode was as an African VLBI network. So as soon as there were four telescopes on the continent that could be linked up as a network, it could do its own signs. The 3rd mode involved working with global networks.

Ms King said that the Project planned to subsidise 300 rural homes. She asked if there was an agreement with VOX Telecom. In terms of the Rand value how much would the subsidy be? She asked further how feasible it would be to have broadband in a rural home.

The SKA SA Project would provide a response in writing to the Committee to answer this question.

The Chairperson said it would be very useful to have a meeting with the Department of Higher Education and the Department of Basic Education, regarding the collaborative efforts with SANParks spoken about by Honourable Koornhof.

The Chairperson asked about the status of Hydraulic fracturing

Mr Adam replied that Hydraulic fracturing in South Africa was an energy creation strategy in the early stages of development using high-pressure drilling techniques to release natural gas trapped in shale rock. After initially imposing a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking”) in April 2011, the SA government lifted the moratorium in September 2012 after an initial investigation by an interdepartmental task team. Several energy companies were subsequently granted exploration licences. Fracking in South Africa was a current topic of debate, with proponents pointing to substantial economic and energy benefits, and opponents voicing concerns about potentially adverse environmental impacts

The Chairperson asked whether the jobs created were part-time, seasonal or full time? On completion, how many jobs were expected to be created by the whole project?

Dr Adam said there was a fact sheet slide which showed employment opportunities and full-time jobs rolled into one. SKA SA planned to employ a couple of hundred people, most of which would be scientists and engineers. At least 15 people were needed to manage the site – those were the farmworkers who would be given employment by SKA SA. A total job creation number had not been looked at as yet. Ultimately several hundred people were needed including our own people.

The Chairperson asked about the other African partners being collaborated with, and if they were coming in as equal partners in terms of resources. She should rather have asked if SA was coming in as an equal partner to Australia for example.

Dr Adam said South Africa had equal status as other countries and paid membership fees. Other African partner states did not pay anything. In the spirit of Ubuntu SA covered the other member states.

Ms J Terblanche (DA) said she had visited the area so was basically covered. However, her concern was still around Big Data and how that was being dealt with and if there were enough people to assist with this. Basically, she wanted to know how far the country was in training people to work on Big Data. She admitted that that had always been and was still a concern for her and that was why she did not want to keep asking about it. Do we have enough scientists and technicians to deal with the Big Data?

Mr Ngoasheng said that Big Data was now one of the core projects being undertaken by MeerKat. A formal project had been commissioned, not only activating machine learning products in the MeerKat system, but in talks with UCT and the Africa Institute for Mathematical Studies, so the idea was to develop skills in this regard. Big Data and machine learning skills were very popular right now. In terms of Big Data, the Project had aligned itself with the DST protégée, the National Research Cyber Infrastructure, the Africa Research Network as well as a data centre with the view that MeerKat would be one of the key data distributors.

Ms N Ndongeni (ANC) asked when and if one was going to see the Project working, and if it was still on line.

Dr Adam replied that it was already working. One of the advantages of radio astronomy was that one could use any size array one wanted to, the bigger the array, the better. There were already images produced from which scientific publications could be produced. From March next year there would be a fully functioning scientific instrument, so from 1 April and in next five years there would be the best radio telescope operating from SA. At the end of five years it would be integrated into SK1. So, a full MeerKat telescope would be operating from early next year. It was partly operating now.

The Chairperson said the Committee would come and see the 64 dishes in March next year. The SKA SA Project was thanked for the progress report. This was an exciting development for the country. African partners would also benefit because they were not paying membership but could still participate fully.

Dr Adam thanked the Committee for the invitation and for listening so openly to the report.

The meeting was adjourned.

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