ATC110622: Report Visit to Square Kilometer Array (SKA) in Carnarvon & South African Large Telescope (SALT) in Sutherland

Science and Technology

Report of the Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology: Visit to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) in Carnarvon and the South African Large Telescope (SALT) in Sutherland, 29 - 30 March 2011, dated 22 June 2011.


1. Introduction

The Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology visited SKA and SALT on 29 and 30 March 2011. The main purpose of the visit was for the Committee to familiarise themselves with the locations for the telescopes and also to deepen their understanding of the different projects. SALT and SKA were 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 visit followed the Department of Science and Technology’s detailed brief on the progress with regard to SKA.


The two-day programme consisted of:

·         the SKA offices at Klerefontein

·         the KAT7/MeerKAT site

·         SALT site

·         SALT/SAAO Sutherland facilities

·         Viewing smaller telescopes on Sutherland hill

·         Star-gazing and the Visitors Centre

·         SALT Technical Operations Team

·         The community centre and school hostel



Dr ENN Ngcobo (ANC)

Ms L Dunjwa (ANC)

Ms H Line (ANC)

Ms P Mocumi (ANC)

Ms S Plaatjie (COPE)

Ms M Shinn (DA)


The delegation was accompanied by Ms Shanaaz Isaacs (Committee Secretary), as well as officials from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), National Research Foundation (NRF) and South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).


The lead hosts accompanying the Committee were Dr Albert van Jaarsveld of the (NRF) and Prof Phil Charles of the (SAAO).


2.  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. 


2,1 SKA Office

The SKA offices were situated in Klerefontein. It was a building which had been refurbished to house offices, workstations, a mechanical laboratory, a boardroom and an entertainment area. It was approximately 80 kilometres from the site.


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 saw two control rooms, one located at KAT-7 which was occupied by astronomers and the other was an on-site control room during operations. The Cape Town control room located in Pinelands remains the main engineering room from where the telescope will be operated.   

2.2 MeerKAT Site

Members were taken to the MeerKAT site where the 7 dishes had been erected.

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.. There were already several requests from radio astronomers around the globe who wanted to use it as a science instrument.

The MeerKAT sub-systems employ a number of novel technologies which were in the mainstream of SKA development. The MeerKAT design process would provide important deliverables for the SKA South Africa Project, as expected from the precursor instruments. In addition to the pioneering use of composite materials for the dish reflector surfaces and structural components (KAT-7 was the world's first radio telescope with dishes made of fibreglass), design challenges include the development of very wide band waveguide feeds and receivers, low-cost cryogenic systems for cooling the receivers, direct digital sampling systems, high speed digital signal processing systems, algorithms for astronomy data processing, high performance computing platforms that match the algorithms, and very fast data transport networks.

An explanation was given on how the receivers on the dish worked. The receiver was that 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. At the time of the visit, five receivers had been installed. 


3. Visit to the SALT site


In 2000, 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. An observation required the primary mirror to be stationary and the instruments move across on a tracker, which follows the Earth’s rotation. The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) is situated alongside the telescopes of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) on a hilltop close to Sutherland in the Northern Cape Province.


Upon viewing SALT, Members were told that their visit coincided within the period the telescope became fully functional and that it would be used that evening for viewing.

The telescope had initial challenges with regard to image quality (IQ). The efficiency of the spectrograph was greatly reduced compared to what had been expected. A lengthy repair process followed, involving the dismantling and testing of all optical components verifying their optical condition and cleaning them where necessary. The mirrors were all realigned and tested with a computer generated hologram. It was later reported that the viewing which took place that night, had been very successful and very good astronomical images had been obtained.


3.1 SALT/SAAO Sutherland hostel facilities

The SAAO hostel facilities mainly accommodated visiting astronomers and technical staff. Staff based in Cape Town rotated and travelled on a weekly basis to provide IT and technical support to the operations in Sutherland. Visiting astronomers could also make use of the facilities but had to book time on a specific telescope months in advance and could stay for a period of two weeks depending on the allocation of the instruments and telescopes.     


3.2 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 South African astronomy researchers. They were still used for competitive research by bothSouth Africa 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 continue to be collaborative activities with countries such as UK, USA, Poland, South Korea, India, Germany, Russia and France. These international collaborations were seen as important in the areas of skills transfer and expertise.


3.3 Star-gazing and the Visitors Centre

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. 


The tour-guide, Mr Willem Prins, from the local community, took the Members on a tour through the Visitors Centre. Mr Prins is currently busy with his “Introduction in Astronomy” course via the University of Lancashire.


3.4 SALT Technical Operations team

The Committee was briefly introduced to the team members of the Technical Operations Division. SALT generated employment for twenty-one technical operations employees. Seventeen employees were employed on-site and four were based in Cape Town. Four were Sutherland residents, five were from surrounding rural towns and one was from Namibia. One of the four software employees was a paraplegic who was confined to a wheelchair. A further two employees from Sutherland were being trained as artisans. Skills employed in this division include mechanical, electronic, system, software and opto-mechanical engineering and technology. A number of local residents were also employed periodically to see the project through its peaks. 


3.5 The school hostel and community centre

Members visited the school hostel. Since Sutherland High School was the only high school in the district offering science as a subject, learners interested in taking science as a subject often had to travel long distances to attend school. The hostel offered accommodation to those learners, mainly children of farm workers, who study science at the school. The poor conditions at the hostels made it difficult to attract learners to the school, hence a refurbishment was necessary. The upgrades had been made through the efforts of the NRF.


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. Once completed, the Centre would have space for computer training, an after school learning area and a play area for young kids. The outside of the Centrewould have a braai area which could be used for evening activities such as telescope viewing and outdoor projection for educational movies. The Centre would be managed by the Board, comprising representatives from SAAO,Karoo-Hoogland Municipality, the two schools in the area, Department of Social Development and the Sutherland Unemployment Forum.        


4. 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 what the members observed at the two facilities and could relate that to the numerous in-depth space-related briefings that were held at Parliament.


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.  Apart from enhancing the innovation in science and technology through bidding to host the SKA radio telescope, the Committee acknowledged the number of job opportunities already created in the Northern Cape and foresaw this number increasing with continued investment and support during the bid process.


5. The following recommendations were made:

The Department of Science and Technology should continue to keep the Committee informed regarding progress leading-up to the bid to host the international SKA radio-astronomy facility and whether all plans are proceeding as planned.

The 62nd International Astronautical Congress, which is scheduled to take place in Cape Town in October 2011, is an important platform to highlight South Africa’s astronomy facilities and the Department should make effective use of this opportunity to promote our astronomy.     


Report to be considered.



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