South African Govt Confident of Hosting Massive Telescope

South Africa's MerKat radio telescope
South Africa's MerKat radio telescope

Africa is ready to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), according to South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor. Pandor was clear in her opinion that Africa – consisting of South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia – has no intention of losing the SKA bid to Australia and New Zealand, saying: “We have no other plans. Plan A, we are ready to host SKA. Plan B, we are ready to host SKA and Plan C, we are ready to host SKA.”

The process for the allocation of a preferred site to host the SKA radio telescope is expected to be announced on April 4, though this is likely to be delayed as the SKA organisation considers their final decision on which country will host the array.

Africa’s bid to host the SKA was boosted by the European Union adopting Declaration No. 45 on Science Capacity Building Africa: Strengthening European-African Radio Astronomy Partnerships. Pandor jokingly said she thinks the majority vote in South Africa’s parliament – unusual because of political differences – was possibly helped by a complaint from Australia and New Zealand, who are the competitors for the bid to host SKA.

“This demonstrates that key partners in European governments and industry share the perspective that not only does Africa have compelling geographic advantages for the hosting of radio astronomy facilities, but that our continent is an attractive and valued partner for science and innovation,” Minister Pandor said.

The Africa Summit held in January in Ethiopia confirmed the African Union’s support for the SKA and for radio astronomy to be a priority focus, Pandor said.

The announcement by South African Minister Pravin Gordan that the SKA project would qualify for VAT relief “further assured the investors who are willing to join the project to see South Africa as a good place of investing in African science and technology”.

The project has attracted some of world’s biggest companies, like CISCO, SAP and Google. Chinese businesses have expressed interest in development as well.

According to the Director-General of the Department of Science and Technology, Phil Mjwara, the SKA tenders are international and the process will be transparent. No favour will be apportioned to Chinese or South African firms he assured, when asked about China’s involvement.

Information leaks have suggested that South Africa is the favourite for hosting the SKA. Reports from both the Sydney Morning Herald and leading scientific journal Nature stated that Australia’s chances were dealt a “crippling blow” in light of the alleged favouritism for South Africa’s bid. South African officials have refused to comment on the reports beyond stating that they are unwilling to compromise on their single bid for Africa.

The battle for the bid with Australia has become tough with reports that Australian politicians have appealed to various countries which will vote on the site, while diminishing South Africa ‘s scientific superiority viewing as “affirmative action”.

SKA South Africa Project Director, Bernie Fanaroff, detailed the qualities and facilities that Africa can offer to make the project a success. “In Africa, we have outstanding technical capacity. We have an excellent team of dedicated young people who like their jobs, and the South Africa Karoo is a strategic area to build such project.”

SKA’s member countries are increasing, with new members joining. Angola has expressed their willingness to contribute towards SKA facilities.

South Africa has built 64 dishes in preparation for the project with a further 128 expected by July this year, Fanaroff said. Tenders for the construction of the MeerKAT have been submitted with construction scheduled for December 2012.