African countries meet to discuss SKA astronomy project

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Members of the nine Square Kilometre Array (SKA) African partner countries met last week to co-ordinate their research efforts for the project

Picture: Reuters

Members of the nine Square Kilometre Array (SKA) African partner countries met last week to co-ordinate their research efforts for the project.

The SKA will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre, giving 50 times the sensitivity and 10 000 times the survey speed of the best current-day telescopes. It is being built in Africa and Australia.

Thousands of receptors will extend to distances of up to 3 000 km from the central regions. The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our universe, including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth.

The countries were represented by their respective ministers and deputy ministers of science and technology and concluded the fourth ministerial meeting on the SKA in Accra, Ghana, on August 24, 2017 by signing a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on radio astronomy.

A statement, issued at the weekend, said that the purpose of the meeting was to consider progress in the development of human capital initiatives, the establishment of relevant institutional arrangements to co-ordinate and support domestic SKA/African Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) Network (AVN) related activities, the formulation of new academic programmes around physics and astronomy, site selection and the rollout of high performance computing capabilities.

“Radio telescopes naturally produce large quantities of data, in this regard, the meeting agreed that there is a need for advanced computing infrastructure, training and skills development to process the data and to support broad research applications.”

Several funding sources for the building of the SKA in Africa are also being considered. 

“These include the European Union for possible support to the African Data Intensive Research Cloud (ADIRC) and the African Renaissance Fund of the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) further supporting the AVN. In addition, a possible support through funding proposal-writing workshop will be explored by South Africa through the SADC secretariat.”

They said in the statement that on the identification of the location of the second phase of the SKA, partner countries would be engaged through bilateral meetings with the SKA Project Office South Africa in a bid to develop a detailed roadmap beginning in 2018. 

South Africa will host the next meeting of the senior officials and the ministerial forum in mid-2018 to coincide with the formal launch of the MeerKAT Telescope, a precursor instrument to SKA.

The Mercury

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