Sunday, 10 April 2011

South Africa Bids for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)

If everything goes according to plan, the landscape of the Karoo region in the Republic of South Africa will be transformed by 2025 into a beehive of intense scientific activity, bringing Africa into reckoning as a major centre of astronomy, the science of the stars. This exciting prospect has arisen because of South Africa's bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.

What is the SKA Project?

SKA is simply an ambitious astronomy project that is aimed at building the largest and most sensitive radio telescope. With the help of this powerful device, which will be at least 50 times more sensitive than its existing counterparts, a lot of gaps in our understanding of the origin and nature of the universe may finally be filled.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) promises to revolutionise science by answering some of the most fundamental questions that remain about the origin, nature and evolution of the universe. With about 3000 receptors linked together and a total collecting area of one square kilometre, the SKA will have 50 times the sensitivity and 10 000 times the survey speed of the best current-day radio telescopes.

Is Africa Ready for This?
The simple answer is yes. Crucial requirements for the SKA such as availability of land and basic infrastructure (road, electricity), favourable environmental factors and positive technical signals have been surpassed by the Karoo project area. More emphatically, South Africa has developed and is developing impressive research architecture, spearheaded by the MeerKAT project, to provide the infrastructure and to build the necessary technical expertise needed to run a project of this nature. The
MeerKAT telescope, when completed, will be a powerful astral investigative equipment in its own right. Finally, there's plenty of support from the South African government as well as the African Union heads of state for the realization of the SKA in Africa.

How Will Africa Benefit?

Africa stands the chance to become a recognized centre of excellence in astronomy, computing and physics. SKA will provide the opportunity for African scientists to be at the forefront of the latest cutting-edge instruments and technologies in fields connected to it and provide a platform for collaboration with some of the best scientists from the world over. Further, SKA requires €1.5 billion for its execution its and yearly expenditure is in the region of €100 million; this would be a major economic boost for South Africa.

Who is the Barefoot Astronomer?

Scientist Simon Ratcliffe is one of the champions of Africa's Square Kilometre Array bid. He is reputed to prefer being barefooted most of the time, including during work, hence the nickname "Barefoot Astronomer." One of his key roles in the SKA bid team is to communicate details of the advantages of the South African bid to the global scientific community and the general public. Ratcliffe is keen to involve young people in the project:
"Young people interested in astronomy and that might work on this project in future, are destined to become experts in future technologies that will be in high demand around the globe."

Check out Rod Marcel's comprehensive resource for more details on the South African SKA bid.

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