About SKA South Africa

The SKA South Africa has established a greenfield site for the SKA in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province in the arid Karoo. The site is protected from radio frequency interference by special legislation (the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act) and roads, powerlines, optical fibre cables and buildings have been provided. These are expected to be able to accommodate the SKA1-MID telescope’s requirements.

South Africa has designed and is building the MeerKAT telescope – a precursor to the SKA. The first seven-dish KAT-7 array was built as an engineering prototype, but has worked very well and is in demand for science. Scientific publications using the KAT-7 instrument includes cluster sources, radio galaxies, variables and HI maps.

The MeerKAT telescope will be composed of 64 x 13.7m diametre Gregorian offset dishes and will operate in the L, U and S-bands with single-pixel feeds. Ten major observing programmes, involving more than 350 astronomers from around the world, have been allocated time. The MeerKAT will perform significantly better than originally specified (at no additional cost) and so the observing programme will be refreshed in a workshop in May 2016. Measurements show that the MeerKAT survey speed will be 4x the original specification and will be about 8x faster than the JVLA. The MeerKAT will also have VLBI capacity.

Innovative new technologies have been developed for the MeerKAT, including for instance high-performance computing hardware and algorithms, signal processing, logistics and calibration.

The 64 dishes of the MeerKAT telescope will eventually be integrated into the KAT1-MID, composed of a total of 197 dishes. The second phase of SKA (SKA2) will extend the mid-frequency dish array into the eight SKA African partner countries – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.

The development of the MeerKAT has been used as the focus for an extensive Human Capital Development Programme, which aims to produce the young people who can build, operate, maintain and use the SKA and the MeerKAT. The programme has established six research chairs and gives grants to study in engineering and physics or astronomy at undergraduate, MSc, PhD and post-doctoral level. It also gives grants for the training of technicians and artisans. Seven hundred and seventeen grants have been awarded by February 2015 and about forty new students will be taken on in 2016 (in addition to those already receiving grants). Many bursaries have been awarded to students from the eight other African countries which are partners in the SKA.

The SKA South Africa project also supports the schools in the Karoo area, where the SKA will be sited, and has given bursaries for students from surrounding towns to study mathematics and science in the town of Carnarvon. A Community Knowledge Centre and other projects have been built to uplift the community.

The African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) is a network of VLBI-capable radio telescopes on the African continent. It will consist of 30-metre diametre dishes converted for astronomy from satellite communications and some new dishes. It will make a very valuable contribution to international VLBI science. The AVN is also aimed at developing the scientific, technical and institutional capacity needed in SKA Africa partner countries to optimise African participation in SKA2 and enable participation in SKA pathfinder technology development and science.

SKA South Africa is also driving the Big Data Africa project with partners which include major international ICT companies and the UK Newton Fund.