Category: Square Kilometre Array

Pandor announces 2017 science budget, SKA ambitions still on track

Sarah Wild

South Africa would dedicate R128,7-million to international co-operation and relations to secure partnerships in the international domain and create research opportunities for its researchers, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor told a media briefing in Cape Town on 16 May 2017.

A major reason for this was to make up for government funding shortfalls and currency volatility. The Department of Science and Technology, the major funder of science, technology and research in the country, received R7.5-billion for the 2017-18 financial year. While the figure is constant in nominal terms, it has not kept up with inflation trends and with the country’s weakening currency.

“The funding is not yet at the level we want to see it,” Pandor said ahead of her department’s budget vote in Parliament in the afternoon. She had previously set an ambitious target of 1.5% of gross domestic product to be spent on research and development by 2020. At the moment, that percentage is about 0.76%.

To boost spending on research. Pandor said that her department was pushing collaboration outside as well as inside the country.

“We are pursuing a number of initiatives in partnership with the private sector and more and more we are drawing closer to other spheres of government that do no have science, technology and innovation (STI) as a focus area, and [we are] encouraging them to fund STI,” she said.

Despite the funding squeeze, South Africa’s radio astronomy ambitions are surviving the pinch. The department would allocate R 693-million to the National Research Foundation to ensure the completion of the MeerKat, South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA) precursor. The SKA will be the largest radio telescope on Earth, and will be hosted by South Africa and Australia. Construction on the SKA is expected to start late next year.

But the main focus of the department’s 2017-18 budget would be “human capital development and the continuous modernisation of research infrastructure”.

The budget, which will guide the department’s spending priorities,

  • Research development and support: R4.3-billion

This kitty funds most of the country’s academic researchers, and is instrumental in the training of postgraduate students. According to Pandor, in 2015-16, 4,315 researchers were awarded research grants through the National Research Foundation. This number is expected to creep up in 2017-18 to 4,500.

Also, in 2017-18, the National Research Foundation is expected to fund 32,792 postgraduate students. The department has a fairly strict policy about how these bursaries are awarded: 80% must go to black students, 55% to women, and 4% to people with disabilities.

  • Socio-economic partnerships: R1.6-billion

This is one of the department’s five priority areas, and is the most poorly defined. This funding ranges from developing policy and strategy for R&D, and creating indicators for the country to measure its STI performance, through to developing technologies to tackle poverty and create jobs.

  • Technology Innovation: R1.1-billion

This money goes to the likes of the Technology Innovation Agency, tasked with taking technologies from idea to marketable product, and the National Intellectual Property Management Office, which protects intellectual property developed using public funds. Nipmo specifically gets an allocation of R36-million. This kitty also funds research and skills development in focus areas, like space science, renewable energy. and the bioeconomy.

  • International co-operation and resources: R128.7-million

While the department’s eye is almost certainly on using some of this money to coax foreign countries into investing in STI in South Africa, Pandor also said that it would be used to promote capacity building on the continent. to develop Africa’s knowledge base.

  • Administration: R383.7-million

Pandor described this allocation as “meagre”, saying it mainly went to ensuring clean audits and that its entities complied with governance and accountability legislation. The department is one of the few in South Africa’s national government that continues to receive a clean audit.

In terms of individual agencies, all of them got more money, but some did better than others:

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – R916-million (R872 million in 2016-17);

The National Research Foundation – R926-million (R883 million)

The Human Sciences Research Council – R305-million (R290 million)

The Technology Innovation Agency – R397-million (R382 million)

The South African National Space Agency – R131-million (R125-million)

The Academy of Science of South Africa – R25-million (R23-million)

Despite a tight budget, Pandor said that there was good news: she no longer had to convince her government colleagues that STI was a worthwhile investment. “In 2009, it was very difficult; colleagues were constantly questioning the wisdom of investing in this area,” Pandor said. “I no longer have to convince anybody that STI is important.”

Baby MeerKAT exceeds expectations

The first image from South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope shows that the telescope “will be a remarkable discovery machine”, MeerKAT chief scientist Dr Fernando Camilo said on Saturday.

“The images tell us all that MeerKAT is the best telescope of its kind in the southern hemisphere, with only 16 dishes,” he told an assembled audience of ministers, deputy ministers and visitors to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) site in the Northern Cape.

On Saturday, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor inaugurated the first 16 dishes of the MeerKAT telescope – and unveiled its first image. By the end of next year, the MeerKAT telescope, which is South African designed and built, will comprise 64 dishes.

These giant two-storey dishes rise up out of the centre of the MeerKAT core area, standing incongruously against a backdrop of ocre sand and scrubland. Others wait to be assembled, their white metal bowls ready to be hoisted onto waiting pedestals.

“When the full 64-dish MeerKAT is available, it will be the best telescope of its kind in the world,” said Camilo, formerly of Columbia Univeristy who took up the post in April.

“It is very, very difficult to get to this stage [as there is usually a process of trouble-shooting before a telescope can produce a high-quality image]. It tells us and the world that we have a working telescope in the Karoo,” he said.

Although the R3-billion MeerKAT is South Africa-owned and funded, it will be incorporated into the SKA, which will be the largest telescope in the world. The SKA will be hosted by Australia and South Africa, with satellite sites in eight African partner countries. It will seek to answer some of humanity’s most enigmatic questions: are we alone in the universe, what is dark matter, how do galaxies evolve, what happened after the Big Bang?

From 2018, another 133 dishes will be added to MeerKAT to form part of the phase one of the SKA, which has been capped at EUR650-million. In Australia, about 130 dipole antennas, which look like six-foot-tall Christmas trees made out of thick wire, will be constructed as part of this phase.

South Africa decided to build MeerKAT, even before it was announced in 2012 that the SKA would be split between the two countries. Part of the idea at the time was to showcase South Africa’s scientific and engineering capabilities and prove that the country could in fact build and host a radio telescope. The other part was to ensure that it would have a legacy project in case the country lost the hosting bid.

“This is not just an unveiling,” Pandor said at the MeerKAT-16 inauguration. “We want to show the world the kind of research that the MeerKAT-16 makes possible…. We were only meant to reach this [quality of image] at 32 [dishes], not 16.”

It is difficult and expensive to engineer a radio telescope with only one big dish. This is why the MeerKAT – and ultimately the SKA – is an interferometer, which uses many smaller dishes to act as one giant telescope. What this means practically is that an interferometer can be brought online in phases, and the radio telescope can undertake science even though all of its phases are not operational.

Prof Justin Jonas, SKA South Africa chief technologist, said he was “amazed” at the quality of the image, although “there are no accidents here. It’s been a coherent effort from the whole team and the National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Technology…. We hired the right people, had the right processes in place.”

“Personally, I’m very, very excited,” Jonas, who attended the first international SKA meeting as South Africa’s ambassador, said. “I’ve been wanting to build a radio telescope since I was a kid, and now we have. How many people get to do that? And it’s working!”

The released image is a picture of about 1300 radio galaxies, of which only 70 had been imaged before, Jonas said.

Celestial objects, like stars and galaxies, emit radio waves, which cannot be seen with the naked eye. Radio telescopes receive these relatively weak signals from the universe and turn them into maps and images of the universe. The radio spectrum is substantially broader than that of visible light, which means that scientists can “see” more with radio telescopes.

The “first light” image was taken in the L-band, which is a portion of the radio spectrum. This band is of interest globally because it contains information about how the universe and how galaxies evolve, among other things. MeerKAT is expected to be twice as sensitive in this band as was originally anticipated. This means that an experiment in this band could take a quarter of the time it was originally allocated.

However, Pandor said that there was more to South Africa’s astronomy investment than pure science: “Big science brings opportunity to South Africa and the African continent. The SKA brings opportunities to this area, opportunities they hadn’t hoped for.”

It was “not always easy to convince governments to support long-term projects and initiatives, especially in science … [where] there are often nuanced impacts that are not immediately visible”, she said, encouraging dignitaries including Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and 11 deputy ministers from a number of departments, to become “ambassadors for science and the SKA”.

“Science and astronomy science can change lives, change communities, build human capital…. Through science, in South Africa and Africa, we are able to advance development.”

Wild was a guest of the Department of Science and Technology and SKA South Africa

  • This article was first published by Independent Newspapers.

Telescope not an easy sell amid SA’s poverty scars

IT IS a difficult sales pitch: a multibillion-dollar giant telescope used to investigate phenomena so esoteric years of study are required to understand them.

Countries planning to build large scientific infrastructure have to sell the project and its objectives to their citizens.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a good example of this. The telescope will comprise thousands of antennas that will collect relatively weak radio signals from space and use them to map and image the universe. The computing power required to process this quantity of data does not yet exist, and industry wants in. So selling the relevance of the SKA to industry is not that difficult.

The bidding to host the radio telescope came down to two contenders: Australia and SA. In 2012, it was announced that both countries had been selected.

After the excitement had died down, they needed to continue selling the project to their politicians and citizens.

For more, find the article — originally published in Business Day — here.

Belt-tightening hits SA’s SKA budget

South Africa’s radio astronomy ambitions are feeling the pinch of austerity as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s 2016 budget cuts its Square Kilometre Array (SKA) allocation by R250-million. (*The department later noted that this was an error in the budget. The budget decreased by R89-million.)

The SKA will be the largest radio telescope in the world, and will be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia. It will comprise thousands of antennae in Australia and on the African continent. South Africa’s own 64-dish MeerKAT telescope, which will form part of the SKA, is expected to be fully operational at the beginning of next year.

However, the budget overview includes a R250-million reduction over three years, with -R80-million in 2016-17, -R50-million in 2017-18, and -R120-million in 2018-19. (*The department later noted that this was an error in the budget.)

This is the first time since South Africa was chosen as a co-host of the giant telescope that the budget allocation has decreased. In last year’s estimates of national expenditure, the project, which is one of the department of science and technology’s flagship projects, was allocated R2.1-billion.

SKA South Africa director Rob Adam said that he was not able to comment as the project had not yet received its allocation.

Department of science and technology director-general Phil Mjwara told Wild on Science that the country was committed to finishing the MeerKAT and SKA telescopes. “Our understand is that … part of the reason is cash flow. Sometimes, because of delays infrastructure, you have a lot of cash.”

However, this forms part of a larger move towards austerity. The department of science and technology’s budget, which has been steadily increasing since its formation in 2002, is now stagnating. Compared to the 2015 national budget, both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 allocations have been decreased by about R100-million. In terms of the 2016 budget, the department has been allocated R7.43-billion for 2016-17, R7.56-billion for 2017-18 and R7.76-billion for 2018-19.

“The amounts are reasonable,” said Mjwara. “We’re happy that at least the budget is still around R7.5-billion. There are [departments] that have lost several billion in their budget. In the entire context [of South Africa’s economic situation], we’re also contributing to belt tightening.

“We hope that, as the economic situation becomes better, it will increase. That applies to the SKA too,” he said.


* Response to budget queries from the department’s head of SKA and AVN (African VLBI Network) Takalani Nemaungani: “The correct figure for the SKA budget cut is R89m over the current MTEF period – this was communicated officially by Treasury to our Director General earlier this year.  The R250m figure can be assumed to be an error and the DST Finance has been informed on this to see how they will handle this matter with Treasury.”

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.”

Square Kilometre Array needed to train next generation of scientists — Pandor

Flagship initiatives such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project “have the potential to support our training and production of the next generation of scientists and technologists in Africa”, science and technology minister Naledi Pandor told the opening plenary of South Africa’s inaugural Science Forum.

“Scientists need iconic, challenging initiatives that will respond to their search for new knowledge and innovative technology.”

The SKA, which has a conservative price tag of EUR2-billion, will be the largest radio telescope on Earth, with thousands of antennae throughout Australia and Africa. The core of the telescope will be in South Africa’s Northern Cape. All celestial bodies emit radio waves, and by collecting these relatively weak signals, scientists will attempt to answer some of humanity’s most baffling questions: Is there other life in the universe, what happened right after the big bang and what is dark matter?

However, this initiative is not limited to South Africa. There are eight other African partner countries – namely Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia – which will have collections of SKA antennae in their countries.

As part of its efforts to ensure that African countries have the capacity to host a portion of this giant telescope, SKA South Africa initiated a human capital development programme. To date, more than 600 people from the continent have received bursaries to become technicians, engineers, or scientists.

SKA South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff has said that this project has reduced South Africa’s brain drain, with South African scientists and engineers returning home as well as foreign experts being attracted by the possibility of working on the telescope.

South Africa is also building its own telescope: the 64-dish MeerKAT, a precursor telescope being design, built and funded by South Africa, will form part of SKA Phase One.

The first five years of the MeerKAT’s observing time had already been allocated to scientists from all over the world, including South Africa, Prof Russ Taylor told an audience at the Science Forum.

But one of the major challenges of modern radio astronomy – a problem which will be exemplified in the SKA – is how to process all of the data coming from the antennae, he said. Taylor is one of the SKA research chairs, based at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape.

“It is well-known to be one of the most challenging big data [projects],” Taylor said. “We’re talking ‘exaflops’ of data. That doesn’t exist yet.”

An exaflop involves a billion billion calculations per second.

“The SKA is a driver for developing the solution, so it’s a good area of research to get involved in to learn data science and the techiques we can use to analyse big data sets,” Taylor said earlier this year. [S: he told me this in October.]

However, at the moment, South Africa lacks data scientists, and there is a concerted push to training people in this area, so that the country is not left out of this field of SKA science.

In September this year, three universities – the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and North West University – launched the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy.

At the launch of this institute, Pandor said: “A significant focus and investment in big data in South Africa is not only overdue, but is probably crucial if South Africa is to play a significant role in the world economy in the coming decades.”

Taylor told the packed room at the CSIR’s International Convention Centre that the role of the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy was to “work on a solution for big data, but also to train people”.


  • NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.

SKARAB: SA’s solution to high-performance computing

Rows of racks hum in an underground bunker, hidden from the scorching sun and the sensitive radio antennas that dot the desert landscape in the Northern Cape.

All processing capacity for South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA) precursor telescope, MeerKAT, has to be buried so that it will not interfere the dishes which will detect the relatively weak radio signals from space.

The 64-dish MeerKAT will produce about 2.5Tb/s, all of which will have to be correlated and processed before it is sent to Cape Town, via optical fibre, for analysis.

Enter SKARAB, the latest incarnation of technology that will achieve this. SKARAB, which stands for SKA Reconfigurable Application Board, is based on a field-programmable gate array (FPGA). It was designed and is manufactured by South African company Peralex.

For more, find the article — originally published in Mail & Guardian — here.

SKA one step closer to being another CERN

China this week joined a “select” group of countries that had entered into negotiations to create a treaty organisation to govern the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the SKA Organisation said 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 other life in the universe, how do galaxies form and what is dark matter?

With many countries – each trying to protect their investment and interests – and hundreds of scientists and engineers involved in the project, the project is looking to emulate other intergovernmental mega-science projects, such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Established in 1954, CERN has more than 20 member states and, according to the organisation, has more than 10,000 visiting scientists from more than 113 countries going to the CERN laboratory for their research.

Speaking at the sidelines of the SKA Organisation board meeting in Cape Town in July, newly elected president Giovanni Bignami said: “We are moving forward into an intergovernmental organisation. It sounds bureaucratic, but for us it is fundamental. It gives us the legal authority of an international [science] organisation.”

China this week signed a letter of intent. “The signing of the letter of intent marks China’s intention to enter formal negotiations with other SKA member nations,” the SKA Organisation said. “The negotiations are aimed at developing an intergovernmental agreement to establish the SKA Observatory and defining their contribution to the construction of Phase 1 of the SKA telescope.”

The other countries that have signed letters of intent include Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

SKA Organisation director-general Phil Diamond said this was a “very positive step both for the project and for China, one that opens the prospect of industrial contracts for Chinese industry and observing time for the Chinese astronomical community”.

After having signed a letter of intent, the country has to go back to its Parliament to get it ratified.

The aim was to have a drafting of the SKA Intergovernmental Organisation’s treaty or convention completed by the end of next year, the organisation said. Construction of SKA Phase 1 is expected to begin in 2018.

Asked why South Africa should care about the bureaucratic plans around SKA governance, SKA South Africa associate director of science and engineering Justin Jonas said, on the sidelines of the board meeting in July: “It is in our interests that the board and the organisation [are] healthy, that the politics and finances [are] done properly. That is the only way that a good technical and scientific instrument will eventuate out of it.”

He said: “It is important that the board ensures there is a good environment [to attract] other members … a) it will get money in [to fund the construction of the SKA] and b) it will be the international instrument that we want it to be. Eventually, all countries in the world with astronomy interests will be in the SKA. This is the CERN of radioastronomy. Anyone who wants to be a serious astronomer will be part of the SKA.”

At that meeting, Bignami said that he was “absolutely” confident that the Organisation – which currently has 10 members (although only seven have so far signed letters of intent regarding the intergovernmental organisation) – would attract more members, and that they “expect to have 15 members by the end of next year”.

SKA Organisation gives smaller design the green light

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) phase one will now move into its final pre-construction phase, smaller than initially anticipated but within the EUR650-million budget cap. Construction will begin in 2018.

The giant telescope, which will comprise thousands of antennae in Australia and Africa, with the core in South Africa, will be the largest scientific experiment in the world and will attempt to answer some of humanity’s most enigmatic questions, such as: Is there other life in the universe, how do galaxies form and what is dark matter?

However, it was initially envisioned that the telescope would be on one continent and, following the site decision in May 2012 when it was decided that the telescope would be split between South Africa and Australia, scientists and engineers have been working on a design that would accommodate telescopes in both countries, while still getting the maximum science out of the instrument.

As part of the bid to host the giant telescope, Australia and South Africa developed precursor telescopes, named Askap (Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder) and MeerKAT respectively. The second dish of the 64-dish MeerKAT was erected in February and the entire telescope is expected to come online in 2017.

For more, find the article — originally published in Mail & Guardian — here.