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On 25 May 2012, it was announced that Africa would be building the world’s biggest radio telescope, called the Square Kilometre Array or the SKA. Emerging victorious over Australia, the full dish array and dense aperture array will be built in Africa, while the core (which contains the highest concentration of receivers) will be constructed in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, about 80km from the town of Carnarvon.(2)
The choice for the ideal location for the core construction was a difficult and irksome process, but after much deliberation and a handful of factors, the Karoo in Africa was clearly the best option. Radio telescopes must be sited as far away as possible from any interference of man-made electronics or machines, as these devices inevitably interfere with radio signals originating from the distant corners of the universe. Furthermore, the locale should also be as high and dry as possible, as radio waves can be absorb the moisture in the Earth’s atmosphere.(3)
This majestic, manmade feat that originated out of hundreds of years of thinking, planning and technological innovation in development, will open a one kilometre window into the past. The discipline of astronomy allows us to see back in time, as light reflects off distant stars or galaxies, taking a significant amount of time to reach our telescopes. Steve Rowlings of Oxford University explains it as follows: “The Square Kilometre Array is a time machine. As you look out to greater distances you’re seeing the universe as it was when it was younger, and so you can map out the expansion of the universe.”(4)
This CAI paper explores the development of the biggest radio telescope in history and why the developing continent Africa was chosen as the main site of construction over the developed countries of Australia and New Zealand. Furthermore, it discusses the significant political, economic, environmental, technological, legal and social ramifications and benefits it has for the African continent and its inhabitants. As highlighted in this paper, certain pitfalls, such as financial and educational constraints that are, however, not insurmountable.
It’s just cricket: Australasia versus Africa
For many years prior to construction, the SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC) sat with the dilemma of which nation would host the main structure of the SKA radio telescope. The ZAR20 billion (US$ 2 billion) project of constructing the world’s biggest radio telescope collection will consist of about 3,000 dishes, with 50% within 5km of the original site, 25% within 200 kilometres and the final 25% within 3,000 kilometres.(5) The amount of data collected by this radio telescope will take nearly two-million years to play back on an Apple iPod.(6)
South Africa’s bid included dishes in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Mauritius, Namibia and Zambia. Mozambique will be South Africa’s key partner in the development of the SKA radio telescope at its Science and Technology Park in Maluana, in the Maputo Province,(7) consisting of 24 dishes and just over 10 local technicians.(8)
Australia’s site would reach as far as New Zealand, with the proposed site for the core’s construction at the Murchison Radio Observatory in one of the planet’s most sparsely populated regions.(9) The SSAC’s final resolve had to be garnered from 17 factors grouped into 3 categories, namely technical and scientific factors, socio-economic and political considerations and implementation plans and cost structures.(10)
South Africa’s proposal for the construction of the dish array configuration was ruled as “significantly better,” due to the “superior layout” of the remote stations.(11) While the supply and cost of electrical power counted against South Africa due to the condition of its existing lower generation power grid, eyebrows were raised about security measures to be taken in Africa, but the SSAC concluded by saying “it was likely that it would be more difficult, but not impossible to recruit high quality non-local staff.”(12)
In terms of political, socio-economic and monetary factors, Australia had “significant” and established benefits over Africa, with the committee scoring the former 14.5 against the latter’s 5.5, in a system where 10-10 represented no difference and 20-0 was noted as “very serious” disparities.(13)
Even though South Africa’s existing infrastructure and political, economic and financial mechanisms are way ahead of the rest of the African continent, it was still dramatically lower than Australia in international rankings. In terms of customs, excise and jurisdiction, Australia and New Zealand presented a better case with regards to making the construction and operation of the SKA simpler, easier and lawfully official. Traditionally, Australia has a larger pool of educated and potential employees and sustained economic growth, as opposed to rifts of inequality and patches of illiteracy in Africa.(14)
After much deliberation, it was officially announced on 25 May 2012, that Africa, Australia and New Zealand would share the hosting rights, but South Africa was announced as the “preferred site” to be completed in 2024. The SSAC’s final assessment ruled as follows: “The majority of the SKA dishes in phase one will be built in South Africa combined with MeerKAT (the southern hemisphere’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope until the SKA is completed). Further SKA dishes will be added to the Australian Square Kilometre Pathfinder (Askap) array in Australia. All the dishes and the mid-frequency aperture arrays for phase two of the SKA will be built in Southern Africa, while the low-frequency aperture array antennas for phases one and two will be built in Australia.”(15)
South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, was jubilant about the final outcome for South Africa and the African continent, announcing that “Africa is indeed rising. South Africa is confident that the country will deliver on the expectations of the continent and world.”(16) The ruling African National Congress further commented that “this is a momentous day for South Africa and the continent and will give all of us the possibility to answer fundamental questions in physics, astronomy and cosmology.”(17)
Benefits for the African continent
In the days following the announcement that Africa would host the world’s largest radio telescope and open a window into the vast, unknown universe, it was impeccably clear that this project would aim to be extensively beneficial for every soul directly or indirectly involved. These developing benefits are not solely centralised in the beneficial development of African infrastructure or boosting the continent’s international image. On the contrary, human capital development has dramatically increased and is progressively rising with the granting of numerous bursaries, job creation and raising the awareness of and passion for astronomy amongst the youth.(18)
All through South Africa and Africa, there is a fiery passion and enthusiasm for the possible benefits the SKA might provide for the developing continent. However, there is one obstacle in the way forward: education. African education standards have never been exceptionally high and “South African schools are not generally delivering the skills needed for high level fields of study.”(19) Accordingly, more attention needs to be paid to the increase of technical skills and to motivate school students to study and excel at science and physical science.(20)
In 2011, 70.2% out of a total 496,090 students passed the final year of school (matric), while only 24.3% obtained university entrance.(21)
Illiteracy and a lack of general interest in education are connected with hopelessness and disadvantaged communities, especially in the rural areas of Africa. However, the National Research Foundation (NRF) is in the process or organising and facilitating outreach projects, installing excitement and hope in the hearts of Africa’s youth. In the end, it is aimed at gradually transforming South Africa’s resource-based economy to a knowledge economy.(22) One such initiative, the SKA-MeerKAT Schools Competition, headed by Naledi Pandor, the South African Minister of Science and Technology, encouraged learners to study mathematics and science and to “provide an unrivalled opportunity for the development of high-level skills and expertise in Africa.”(23)
In the years during and post Apartheid in South Africa, the continent witnessed a dramatic increase of ‘brain drain’. As instances of conflict, unemployment, inequality and lack of innovative opportunities saw thousands of countries’ top students and intellectuals leave their native countries in search of greener pastures abroad. However, with the news of the SKA reaching the distant corners of the world, the Director of SKA in South Africa, Bernie Fanaroff believes that “there is an inverse brain drain from the United States and Europe. People are saying they want to come and work in Africa. As the SKA is built, we will see more of that.”(24)
South Africa’s bid to host the SKA radio telescope ahead of Australia and New Zealand cost ZAR1.1 billion (US$ 133 million) since its announcement in 2003, but it was not in vain.(25) According to Pandor, “since 2005, 398 SKA SA postdoctoral fellowships and PhD, MSc and undergraduate bursaries have been awarded to 70 Africans outside South Africa. To date, ZAR55 million has been spent on the human capital development programme. From 2012 to 2017, an additional ZAR 200 million plus will be spent.”(26)
Job-creation and education encouraging opportunities are not aimed solely at South Africa. Eight hundred construction vacancies have already been created in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, to be followed by a further 100 opportunities to be created in 2012.(27) Since 2012, 72 grants have been made available to women and 39 students from other African countries and 6 research chairs have been established at South African universities.(28)
The education and job-creation benefits are clear in the eyes and hearts of Africans. However, with the recent discovery and exploration of shale gas in the same area where the biggest eye in the universe is to be built, it might cause some scuffle.
What the frack? Science versus mining
The arid terrain of the Karoo allocated for the SKA radio telescope falls under an astronomy law, the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act of 2007, which prohibits any activity interfering with star gazing or the study of astral bodies. The law, voted into place to encourage South Africa’s bid to host the SKA, provides the Science Ministry the right to remove trees, re-route flights of planes, silence radio signals or prohibit anything or anyone that inhibits astronomy in the region.(29)
The international petroleum and gas giants, Royal Dutch Shell and SASOL respectively, have recently initiated a study surveying the Karoo Basin region and discovered that South Africa is sitting on 485 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas recourses.(30) In order to retrieve these underground gas deposits, gigantic drillers blast vast amounts of sand and water crammed with hazardous chemicals to free natural gas and oil from hidden deposits. The repercussions of this process are extremely harmful as the chemicals filter into the water-supply of surrounding areas and causes earth tremors. This has resulted in various nations banning the process completely.
Pandor released a statement to the press, stating “There is no decision by government on [fracking]. We must understand the science before any licence is given, but I will use the Astronomy Advantage Act if necessary.”(31) Subsequently, the Department of Mineral Resources has installed regulations to arrest any further applications and decisions to explore for gas in the Karoo. The region, which is already home to the Southern Africa Large Telescope, or SALT, has received sharp criticism from environmentalists and Royal Dutch Shell.
According to Adrian Tiplady, the Site-Characterisation Manager at the SKA South Africa, “The primary risk is electromagnetic interference generated from heavy industrial equipment, such as that associated with mining equipment, and any radio communication equipment associated with the mining activity… Seismic activity would also have an impact, but only within a closer proximity.”(32) As all telescopes need clear skies to function accordingly, rising dust from drilling and vibration from any bustling activity could interfere with the images.
Royal Dutch Shell has responded to these allegations, solemnly promising to respect the legislation in place, insisting on instructing its developers to drill beyond a three kilometre buffer zone around the sites. Tiplady believes that the energy giant has misinterpreted the Act. “They have confused SALT and the SKA, thinking that the requirements are the same for both facilities. They are not, as SALT is an optical telescope and the SKA is a radio-astronomy telescope… Any mineral exploitation will require a detailed analysis, and a very detailed impact assessment on radio astronomy and the SKA before proceeding.”(33)
The Chairman of Shell South Africa, Bonang Mohale, announced to the South African Press Association that Shell is in regular contact with Pandor, over their intentions in the Karoo. Pandor sharply denied any contact by Mohale or Shell, having “never had any communication from Shell in this regard, and has never met Mohale to discuss the proposed project.”(34)
The African continent is on the cusp of developing the world’s largest radio telescope and penetrating the dark, unknown universe, one square kilometre at a time. Although it is a joint partnership between Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the majority of the array will be hosted in Africa. This momentous event holds countless benefits for the continent, in terms of education, job-creation and eradicating inequalities installed in the past.
Students and scholars all over the continent are drawn to this massive structure as an epitome of hope and an opportunity to make something with their lives and put the African continent on the map once and for all. There is certainly reason to be optimistic, if not over the moon, so to speak.
Energy and petroleum conglomerates, such as SASOL and Royal Dutch Shell, have tried their hand at interfering with this process, but to no avail. Armed with the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act of 2007, it seems highly unlikely and improbable that South Africa will be subject to the much detested practice of drilling for gas in the Earth’s core.
The world is already becoming a new arena with ideological and political poles interchanging. Change is upon us Africa!
Written by Konrad Geldenhuys (1)
(1) Contact Konrad Geldenhuys through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Optimistic Africa Unit (email@example.com).
(2) Slabbert, A., ‘SKA makes Karoo town starry-eyed’, FIN24, 22 July 2012, http://www.fin24.com.
(3) ‘Questions and Answers’, SKA Official Website, http://www.ska.ac.za.
(4) Redfern, M., ‘World’s biggest radio telescope, Square Kilometre Array’, BBC News, 31 March 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(6) Gerardy, J., ‘SKA project aims to inspire SA’s future scientists’, Mail & Guardian, 24 July 2012, http://www.mg.co.za.
(7) ‘Africa: Mozambique to co-host world’s largest telescope’, AllAfrica.com, 28 May 2011, http://www.allafrica.com.
(8) Hughes, J., ‘Mozambique: Further details emerge over the country’s role in SKA’, AllAfrica.com, 1 June 2012, http://www.allafrica.com.
(9) Redfern, M., ‘World’s biggest radio telescope, Square Kilometre Array’, BBC News, 31 March 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(10) Yeld, J. and Jones, M., ‘Both bids had strengths’, The Star, 29 June 2012.
(15) Wild, S., ‘SA, Australia to share SKA telescope’, Business Day, 25 May 2012, http://www.businessday.co.za.
(17) ‘Africa: Mozambique to co-host world’s largest telescope’, AllAfrica.com, 28 May 2011, http://www.allafrica.com.
(18) Maromo, J., ‘SA reaps human-capital benefits from SKA telescope’, Business Day, 9 July 2012, http://www.bdlive.co.za.
(19) Alfreds, D., ‘Education “key” to SKA rollout’, News24, 10 July 2012, http://www.news24.com.
(20) ‘South Africa: Call for learners to study maths, science’, AllAfrica.com, 10 July 2012, http://allafrica.com.
(21) Alfreds, D., ‘Education “key” to SKA rollout’, News24, 10 July 2012, http://www.news24.com.
(22) ‘SA becoming a knowledge economy’, SouthAfrica.info, 31 July 2012, http://www.southafrica.info.
(23) ‘African skills needed for SKA’, iafrica.com, 10 July 2012, http://www.iafrica.com.
(24) Wild, S., ‘SKA telescope to turn brain drain in SA into brain gain’, Business Day, 25 July 2012, http://www.bdlive.co.za.
(25) Monyeki, J., ‘South Africa: SKA bid cost R1.1 billion, but jobs already in the offing’, AllAfrica.com, 20 June 2012, http://www.allafrica.com.
(26) Wild, S., ‘SKA telescope to turn brain drain in SA into brain gain’, Business Day, 25 July 2012, http://www.businessday.co.za.
(27) Monyeki, J., ‘South Africa: SKA bid cost R1.1 billion, but jobs already in the offing’, AllAfrica.com, 20 June 2012, http://www.allafrica.com.
(29) Herskovitz, J., ‘SKA success could threaten fracking plans’, Independent Online News, 30 May 2012, http://www.iol.co.za.
(30) ‘SKA may scupper fracking plans’, News24, 29 May 2012, http://www.news24.com.
(32) Nordling, L., ‘Mining plans pose threat to South African astronomy site’, nature.com, 22 March 2012, http://www.nature.com.
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