The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and MeerKAT radio telescope projects have been allocated R1,9bn over the next three years, according to the 2013 national budget tabled by finance minister Pravin Gordhan before the South African Parliament on Wednesday the 27th of February, 2013.
SA has also started negotiations with foreign partners to help fund the construction of the world’s next generation radio telescope — the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) — which is set to dwarf any other existing astronomy instrument. The SKA project will suck in a broad investment expected to run to billions of US dollars, a bill SA expects its partners in the deal will have to pick up part of. The bulk of the project will be built in SA,s remote and arid south-west in the Karoo region.
Bernie Fanaroff, a graduate in physics from the University of the Witwatersrand, has worked as a radio astronomer for more than a decade and in that time he has made two major international contributions to the science. One, in 1974, was a breakthrough in the classification of radio galaxies with a British astronomer, Julia Riley. It is called the Fanaroff-Riley classification and is renowned among astronomers. His second, and for South Africa perhaps the more significant one, is that he lead the team that has landed the biggest global scientific project in Africa, the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA.
South Africa now has the lion’s share of the SKA project, but now we need to start producing the scientists to carry out the research on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, if we want the project to be an unqualified success. The head of astronomy at the National Research Foundation (NRF), Nithaya Chetty, is quoted as having said that it was essential for the continent to start investing in human capacity development. In his own words,. “It is going to be absolutely tragic, if all we do is build up the infrastructure and we don’t have sufficient African scientists to utilize these excellent facilities.”
All this Big Science is happening about 70 km northwest of the sleepy Karoo town of Carnarvon, which reputedly has more churches than ATMs. This former 19th-century mission station is the closest town to a science and astronomy hub that is forming in the arid central Karoo region where the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) mega-telescope will be built. Scientists now fly in on a weekly chartered flight. Property prices have shot up, the number of guesthouses has grown, and the pretty town of fewer than 6 000 people has made it onto television news weather maps.
But, one in two locals are still unemployed, and the SKA team has cautioned that most of the jobs will be in the construction phase on the site. People have high expectations that the MeerKAT/SKA project is going to alleviate the poverty in this region, but it’s a science project, not a job creation project. Only time will tell what the overall effect of these projects will be on Carnarvon.