With an eye on future funding, Square Kilometre Array makes fresh pitch in Europe

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SKA South Africa project director Rob Adam goes on European roadshow to maintain interest in telescope still some years from being completed

Square Kilometre Array South Africa project director Rob Adam held a series of meetings in Europe this week to press for continued EU financial support for the world’s most powerful radio telescope, under construction in South Africa and Australia.

With an eye on future funding from EU governments, Adam gave a progress report on the huge telescope, which has enthralled the global science community but faces some resistance from local landowners. Satellites and antennas attached to the project are already peering into space, but it will be 2020 before the first phase of SKA goes live.

The final design is to be agreed and to construction to begin, in 2018. A firm cap of €674 million has been put on the first phase of the project, resulting in some changes to the original design and a plan to retrofit equipment as additional funding becomes available, after construction of the array is completed.

Four EU countries, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK, which houses SKA headquarters at Manchester University’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, are members of the project. More are welcome to join, Adam told a meeting at the South African Embassy in Brussels.

Portugal is coming on board as a full member; Germany is to become an associate member. Germany was originally a full member but left in 2014, citing changed budget priorities.

When it is finished, the SKA will be able to decipher the secrets of distant galaxies. But for now, the project has more immediate problems to solve back on Earth.

SKA is already putting South African science firmly in the shop window, but finding pay-offs for ordinary people in a remote area where economic opportunities are few has been a challenge.

The ‘mother of all radio telescopes’, as Adam described it, needs a lot of ground. “The majority of my work has been land negotiations,” he said. “The toughest part of the job is when you have to look someone in the eye and say, I need your farm.”

The site in the Northern Cape, the largest and most thinly populated province of South Africa, will house 197 dishes. The 64-dish MeerKAT telescope, another part of SKA, is already underway, with more dishes and antennas to be added from 2018.

The wide empty spaces in the region make it an obvious choice to put a telescope. “You can’t see skies like ours from the northern hemisphere,” said Adam.  

But among the empty space is land belonging to 36 sprawling farms, supporting sheep, ostrich and springbok, which the project needs to purchase. “We’re buying 132,000 hectares, an area about 4 per cent the size of Belgium,” Adam said. He told the South African parliament at the end of May that land acquisition in 75 per cent complete.

Quelling the concerns, and is some cases anger, of sheep farmers has become an unexpectedly large feature of Adam’s job. “It has been a lot of coalface activity. I do a road trip for a week at a time and I ask the communities what their needs are,” he said.

On these trips, he tries to communicate what the project will give back to the semi-desert area beyond scientific discoveries. “We’re trying to bring benefits instead of just being those weird people who come in and tell people to stop using their cellphones,” he said. The sensitivity of the telescope means mobile phones and other electronic devices are banned in the area.

Save the Karoo, an advocacy group, is not enamoured with the SKA’s offer. “There is no need to argue the scientific merits of the project”, its website says. “The other side of the project is less convincing.”

The group says the displacement of sheep farmers will cost the region 20 to 30 million rand (€ 1 to 2 million) annually. The loss of farming money will dent other parts of the economy, with churches, recreational facilities, clubs, organisations and unions losing financial contributions.

The restrictions on radio frequencies mean much of the Northern Cape, “will be thrown back to an era before mobile technology,” the group says.

SKA is listening to complaints and has made changes to the way it works, Adam says. One meeting persuaded the project leadership to change its procurement strategy. “Now, if we hire trucks, the dealership has to be within 100 kilometres of the site,” said Adam.

SKA also sponsors a maths and science teacher at a secondary school in Carnarvon, a nearby town, and provides college bursaries for nine students. “No one in Carnarvon had a pass in maths or science before, now we are putting some of their students through university,” Adam said.

Progress on other fronts

In April, the ground was broken on the £16.5 million headquarters building at Jodrell Bank, which is due for completion in June 2018.

At the same time, negotiations are in hand to secure an intergovernmental status for SKA, in line with the status enjoyed by CERN. The South African science minister, Naledi Pandor was informed of progress on this and other aspects of the project, when she visited the SKA headquarters in the UK for the first time last month.

Meanwhile, a meeting of the SKA engineering group in Rotterdam this week made further progress in finalising the design. Alistair McPherson, SKA deputy director told the meeting, “A lot of work has been achieved since last year and the SKA office and community are very much drilling down into the detail of the cost and engineering of the telescopes en route towards critical design review – a critical engineering milestone – next year and later on construction approval.”

Naturally, the project finds ready support among researchers.  A first taste of the SKA’s potential arrived in July last year when the MeerKAT telescope revealed over a thousand previously unknown galaxies.

Astronomers estimate that SKA will generate 35,000-DVDs-worth of data every second, or a new world wide web’s worth of data every day, when it starts its observations in 2020.

In the meantime, South Africa has another telescope to get excited about called Hera.

An American, South African and UK collaboration, Hera is investigating the formation and evolution of the very first stars. As the precursor telescope to the SKA its will detect changes in the emissions from the neutral hydrogen gas found in the universe before stars, galaxies and black holes formed.

Nobody has yet detected a signal from this period, but Hera has come the closest so far. “It’s made up of little more than chicken wire, PVC piping and telephone poles, said Adam. “The principal investigator is American but we have South Africans on the team, and for me that’s good enough.”

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