ATC150216: Report of the Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology on its visits to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project Office in Pinelands, Cape Town, on 12 November 2014, the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in Sutherland and the SKA and the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT) sites in Carnarvon on 25 - 26 November 2014, dated 16 February 2015

Science and Technology

Report of the Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology on its visits to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project Office in Pinelands, Cape Town, on 12 November 2014, the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in Sutherland and the SKA and the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT) sites in Carnarvon on 25 - 26 November 2014, dated 16 February 2015.

1. Introduction

The visit of the Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology was two-fold. The first visit was to the SKA research and development (R&D) office in Pinelands, followed by site visits to SALT, SKA and MeerKAT. The main purpose of the visits was for the Committee to familiarise themselves with the different operational functions of the two types of telescope and also to deepen their understanding of South Africa’s astronomy projects. SALT and SKA are two examples of Government’s efforts to exploit South Africa’s geographic advantage for space-related research, and to harness the benefits of space science and technology for socio-economic growth and sustainable development. The visits followed the Department of Science and Technology’s detailed brief on the progress with regard to SKA and MeerKAT.



Dr B Goqwana (Chairperson)

Ms L Maseko (ANC)

Mr N Koornhof (ANC)

Mr C Mathale (ANC)

Mr M Kekana (ANC)

Dr A Lotriet (DA)

Ms J Terblanche (DA)


The delegation was accompanied by:

Ms S Isaacs (Committee Secretary)

Mr T Bottoman (Committee Assistant)

Dr R Osborne-Mullins (Content Advisor)

Dr E Madikane (Researcher)


The Committee was accompanied by officials from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), National Research Foundation (NRF) and South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).



The purpose of the visit to the Pinelands Office was to understand and see how the control room remains the main engineering room from where the SKA telescope will be operated. Members were provided with a brief overview of radio astronomy, the SKA, SKA scientific programmes, MeerKAT engineering and infrastructure and the Karoo site. These discussions were followed by a tour of the MeerKAT engineering subsystems, the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (VLBI) and the Radio Astronomy Research Group. The VLBI, is a SKA South Africa partnership in Africa that is investigating the construction of the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN), an array of radio telescopes throughout Africa as an extension of the existing global Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network. The proposal is to modify existing but redundant dishes previously utilised for satellite telecommunication. An Africa VLBI facility could significantly improve the science which can be done with the global VLBI network. It could also stimulate astronomy in the participating countries and help to develop skills in electronics and information and communications technology.


3. SUTHERLAND - Visit to the SALT site

Members went to view the SALT, which was constructed in 2000 when South Africa and its international partners joined forces to build the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, with a hexagonal mirror array 11 metres across. SALT is situated alongside the telescopes of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) on a hilltop close to Sutherland in the Northern Cape Province.


With a giant mirror gathering 25 times as much light as the previous African largest telescope, SALT allows astronomers to explore:

  • The scale and age of the universe
  • The earliest galaxies and quasars
  • The life and death of stars
  • Planets orbiting the sun
  • Extreme environments


3.1 Smaller telescopes on Sutherland Hill

Members were shown the smaller telescopes. The small telescopes played an important role as astronomy instruments for the SAAO and astronomy researchers. They were still used for competitive research by both South African and international astronomers. They were also used to train future astronomers and were used by South Africa and international universities for postgraduate studies.

Other than the SAAO telescopes, there were many other telescopes at Sutherland that were robotic and belonged to other institutions. South African astronomers, however, were able to access data from all these facilities, either as collaborators or working on their own. There had been and continues to be collaborative activities with countries such as the UK, USA, Poland, South Korea, India, Germany, Russia and France. These international collaborations were seen as important in the areas of skills transfer and the development of expertise.


3.2 Star-gazing and the Visitors Centre

The Members were taken on a tour through the Visitors Centre and for an evening star-gazing session.


Stargazing formed part of the night tours, organised through the Visitors Centre, from Monday to Saturday evening, weather permitting. Approximately 7500 visitors per year toured this centre. Self-guided tours on weekends and public holidays were also available. Tour guides from the local community are also used for this purpose.


3.3 The Community Centre

The Community Centre in Sutherland was constructed, mainly through funding sourced by the DST. The town has many social challenges and a high rate of unemployment, with school leavers having very little opportunity of finding employment. The purpose of the Centre was thus to train and equip people with the necessary skills to acquire jobs. The idea was not to merely establish a computer room, but that the Centre be a place for the community to gather and for learners to spend time doing extra school work after hours. The Centre has space and facilities for computer training, an after school learning area and a play area for young kids. The outside of the Centre has a braai area which can be used for evening activities such as telescope viewing and outdoor projection for educational movies. The Centre is managed by a Board, comprising representatives from SAAO, Karoo-Hoogland Municipality, the two schools in the area, the Department of Social Development and the Sutherland Unemployment Forum.       


4. CARNARVON - Visit to the SKA offices and MeerKAT site

The Committee learnt that the Karoo region of the Northern Cape Province was ideal for SKA and radio astronomy, given its lack of radio frequency interference from man-made sources. The Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act (No 21 of 2007), further protects the actual SKA site and immediate area surrounding it as a radio astronomy reserve. The Act provides strict regulations controlling the generation and transmission of interfering radio signals in the reserve and the area around it. 


4.1 SKA Office

The SKA offices are situated in Klerefontein. It was a building which had been refurbished to house offices, workstations, a mechanical laboratory, a boardroom and an entertainment area.


4.2. Site visit at Losberg

Members were shown the facilities for KAT-7 and MeerKAT.

The tour included a visit to the Integration Room, which is essentially a work area where parts of the telescope are assembled and repaired. Members were shown the Control Room, from where the astronomers and Telescope Operators operate the telescopes. This area will be used for the commissioning and early operation of the MeerKAT telescope.


At the Optical Distribution Frame (ODF), the fibre from the antenna are accumulated and distributed to the Data Centre. Technicians demonstrated the testing of fibre links. At the Data Centre Members were shown the Receiver Testing System (RTS) which is used to test the MeerKAT receptors.


Members were shown a Dish Assembly Shed where the dish moulding takes place. The moulding process was explained to involve moulding the dish from fibre glass composite and resin. A steel backing structure was attached to the dish for support. Flame spraying was the final step in putting the white reflective surface on the dish.


Members also visited the Power Plant section, which supplies clean and uninterruptable power to the whole site.


4.3 KAT-7 and MeerKAT Site

The KAT-7 is a seven dish radio telescope array, which was assembled as a prototype. The completed KAT-7 array was an important engineering test-bed for technologies and systems for MeerKAT, and would also be used as a scientific tool. It eventually paved the way for South Africa in winning the bid to host SKA.

Members saw MeerKAT Antennae 63, the first antennae to be erected of the 64 dishes that will make up the MeerKAT Array.

An explanation was given on how the receivers on the dish worked. The receiver was the component that receives radio waves and translates it into a digital signal that was transported via optic fibre to the correlator, which in essence processes the data received.


5. Conclusions

As the purpose of the visits was to orientate Members with the locations and operations of this important variety of science instruments, there had been no formal deliberations. However, the Committee had developed meaningful insight from their observations at the two major facilities.


Major astronomy facilities such as SALT and SKA, which are perceived as world-class, would ensure that Africa is a significant contributor to the global knowledge economy. The Committee acknowledged the number of job opportunities already created in the Northern Cape and foresaw this number increasing with continued investment and support for the SKA project.



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