SA’s SKA plans get a R40-million boost

South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA) infrastructure designs got a R40-million injection from the European Union (EU) on Tuesday.

The SKA, which has a conservative price tag of €2-billion, will be the world’s largest radio telescope, comprising thousands of antennae throughout Australia and Africa, with the core in South Africa’s Northern Cape. It will attempt to answer some of science and humanity’s most baffling questions, such as: Is there life on other planets, how do galaxies form, and what is dark matter?

First, though, scientists and engineers have to design the telescope which will stretch across two continents.

The SKA South Africa-led consortium – responsible for the infrastructure on the local radio astronomy site near the town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape and headed up by SKA South Africa’s Tracy Cheetham – received about €2.2-million from the EU’s Horizon 2020 Fund to undertake a detailed design for the site. Given the current rand weakness, this translates into more than R40-million.

The SKA project received a total of €5-million from the fund, which aims to shape research, science and innovation in the EU. This money, earmarked for SKA’s infrastructure design, will be shared between the SKA Organisation’s head office in the United Kingdom, Australia’s infrastructure consortium and South Africa’s.

“Ambitious projects [like the SKA] capture the human imagination and can lead to life-changing discoveries and innovations as well as new knowledge for the whole world,” EU commissioner for research, science and innovation Carlos Moedas said.

The design process began last year, and will continue until 2017. SKA construction is expected to commence in 2018.

“Infrastructure is the supporting backbone of the project,” said Martin Austin, engineering project manager for site and infrastructure at the SKA. “Without it, it would be impossible to deliver the telescope and the end product science for the broader community. This welcome funding takes us to the next step: detailed design, the last step on paper before procurement and construction work starts.”

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