African partner countries commit to SKA

March 27th, 2014, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT

 

by Hans van de Groenendaal, features editor, EngineerIT

“The SKA is putting Africa on the map in a very different way. It changes the perceptions of ourselves, changes the world perceptions of Africa and it offers opportunities for African scientists  to  enter into the cutting  edge of science and technology where, we believe, some of the young people trained today could become the Nobel prize winners of the future.” – Minister Derrick Hanekom

Nine Square Kilometre Array (SKA) partner countries have committed to support the project which was awarded to South Africa and Australia. Ministers, deputy minister and representative of Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia met in Pretoria on 26 March 2014 to discuss and coordinate positions of mutual interest and identify future directions of institutionalising cooperation in radio astronomy, particularly on the SKA and the African very long baseline interferometry projects (AVN).

Ten key resolutions were adopted, of which the three most important ones are the reaffirmation of commitment to the vision of positioning Africa as an emerging hub for astronomy sciences and facilities. They agreed to work together to advance cooperation, based on the principles of mutual respect, openness and accountability.

"Baby telescope" built by Ghanaian students being trained in South Africa

“Baby telescope” built by Ghanaian students being trained in South Africa.

They agreed to work towards finalising the AVN/SKA African readiness strategy and joint  implementation action plan by March 2015, to guide partner countries in preparing to host the AVN and the SKA.

They also agreed to work towards formally constituting the AVN/SKA ministerial forum that will be convened on an annual basis from now onwards to provide political and strategic leadership to the African partner countries on the AVN, SKA and other relevant radio astronomy programmes and initiatives; and  to build on existing bilateral synergies and other forms of multi-country frameworks amongst the partner countries.

The AVN project aims to establish self-sufficient radio telescopes in Africa through the conversion of redundant telecommunications antennas into radio telescopes. The AVN project is being funded with R141-million from the African Renaissance fund of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation and the Department of Science and Technology.  Anita Loots of the SKA who is heading up the AVN project said that the first dish to be converted to a radio astronomy facility is in Ghana. It is expected that the dish will be ready for its first science by November 2015. The success of the AVN project is much dependent on internet connectivity. Ghana is in a good position with several submarine cables serving the country. Kenya also has high speed internet connectivity while dark fibre is available in many of the AVN target countries.

Ghanaian students have been undergoing training in South Africa since October 2013 and as part of the programme built a “baby telescope” which will be used in getting hands-on experience to  support the theory of tracking objects in space. The company which built the now disused telecommunications dish in Ghana submitted a proposal to do the conversion to a radio telescope, but going that route will not deliver training of the personnel who ultimately will have to operate and maintain the radio telescope.

Minister  Derrick Hanekom, SA’s Minister of Science and Technology  emphasised:  “Our vision is that the SKA and AVN programmes must build skills. It is our determination that by the time contracts are awarded for building the SKA,  we in Africa will have the expertise and be ready to bid for the construction; and that many of  the contracts will be  awarded to African countries.

“What we are seeing now are mega science projects. It is putting Africa on the map in a very different way. It changes the perceptions of ourselves, changes the world perceptions of Africa and it offers opportunities for African scientists  to  enter into the cutting  edge of science and technology where, we believe, some of the young people trained today could become the Nobel prize winners of the future.”

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