Ambitious is an understatement. The South African scientific community in conjunction with the government recently submitted a bid to build nearly 3,000 radio telescopes in nine African countries to help answer some of the most vexing questions in astrophysics.
It should shed light on how the first galaxies formed, what effect dark energy had on their formations and how Earth-like planets first took shape around nascent stars.
South Africa’s planned Square Kilometer Array (SKA) would stretch across southern Africa, with a few of the thousands of dishes built as far north as Ghana. Scientists hope that when the dishes work in conjunction, they will act as the most powerful radio telescope in the world. The €1.5-billion Euro telescope is expected to be 50 times more sensitive than the most powerful radio telescope that currently exists when it comes online in 2024.
The SKA steering committee, made up of 17 counties involved in the project, will ultimately decide where to place the SKA. By March they will choose between the South African bid or a competing proposal to place the dishes in Australia and New Zealand. Both plans will network together thousands of dishes to create one massive radio telescope, with a combined dish size of roughly a square kilometer.
South Africans are betting that the potential lasting benefits of building the SKA in Africa will make their bid more attractive to the committee than the Australian counterpart. Putting the SKA in Africa will do a lot to strengthen science on the continent.
“There is a need for the first world to help the third world build up science,” George Ellis, a cosmologist at the University of Cape Town, told Nature this month. “This is an ideal opportunity.”
South Africa’s science and technology minister Naledi Pandor told AllAfrica, “[The SKA] will be important foreign direct investment in the African continent, but it also gives us a resource that is durable, which would be used by scientists for more than four decades. We believe this will be an epic scientific infrastructure which will bring thousands of scientists into the nine partner countries in the African continent.”
Projects associated with the SKA bid have already funded over 300 postdoctoral science scholarships in South Africa, with hope of expanding the program should they be awarded the SKA. Pandor said that “many people believe that Africa does not have scientific competence; they don’t think that we have engineers, astrophysicists, mathematicians. I’ve been astounded at how many there are, but who are not working in Africa, because we don’t provide them with the scientific resources and infrastructure to continue to do research.”
Pandor said that the SKA could be a major step in reversing this trend and could lead to a “brain gain” in the nine host countries.
The Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7), a small testbed of seven radio telescopes assembled in South Africa’s arid Karoo, has proven that placing the SKA on the continent can work. A much larger demonstration dubbed MeerKAT is currently being built alongside the KAT-7 with a planned completion date sometime in 2018. South African scientists hope that these two projects will lay the foundation for the ultimate radio telescope.
The African proposal would eventually place radio telescopes in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, Mozambique, Kenya, Madagascar and Zambia.
Photo: SKA Africa