South Africa's President joined dignitaries, scientists, a large media contingent and members of the local community in the small town of Carnarvon today to celebrate South Africa's successful bid to build the world's largest scientific instrument -- the Square Kilometer Array -- in Africa.
President Jacob Zuma touched down by helicopter at the telescope site about 100 km from Carnarvon where the first seven telescope dishes are already operational. The newly appointed Minister of Science and Technology, Mr. Derek Hanekom, as well as his predecessor who played a key role in securing the SKA bid for Africa, Ms. Naledi Pandor, were part of the celebrations.
The President's visit to the SKA site has been described as a turning point for science in Africa, proving that African science enjoys support at the highest level. The support of the South African government has been recognized as a key factor in the country's successful SKA bid.
Following a tour of the dishes and a demonstration of the cutting-edge technologies involved in operating a modern radio telescope, President Zuma joined nearly 4,000 local residents in Carnarvon for a community event. There was huge excitement about the President's visit and he was welcomed enthusiastically by the large crowd.
"I am absolutely excited to be here and see this area making such a significant contribution to global science," the President told the crowd. "I'm also very happy to see young people speaking so confidently and passionately about the project, and already building their careers in science and technology."
"Welcoming the SKA to Africa is a major step towards using science and technology to transform African economies and allowing African countries to participate fully in the global knowledge economy," President Zuma said. "The SKA will propel our continent to the frontline of radio astronomy and it will open many doors for Africa in decades to come."
President Zuma congratulated the SKA South Africa team on winning the SKA bid and thanked them for the hard work that was necessary to achieve this.
"This is a fabulous celebration of the SKA project that we are proud to share with the people of Carnarvon and neighboring towns, all South Africans and the rest of the continent, Minister Hanekom said. He thanked Minister Pandor for her hard work in leading the SKA project to the point where South Africa successfully secured the major share of this iconic radio telescope that will be designed and built over the next 12 years.
"The SKA is a game-changer for Africa, bringing about a science Renaissance across the continent," Pandor said. "The SKA has put Carnarvon on the world map! Let's continue using it to make South Africans proud and to inspire young people about a future in science and technology."
While KAT-7 -- the seven prototype telescope dishes already in place on the Karoo site -- is impressive, they will be dwarfed by the sheer number of telescope dishes that will blossom across the Karoo from 2013 onwards. Following the construction of 64 dishes that will make up the MeerKAT telescope, another 190 dishes will be added during phase 1 of the SKA from 2016 to 2019. By 2024 about 3,000 dishes will be spread across South Africa and its eight African partner countries, with about 2,000 of these at the core SKA site in the Karoo. The core site will also host a large number of flat mid-frequency antennas, each about 60 m in diameter -- the so-called "fish eye lenses" that will be used for full-sky surveys.
The 64 MeerKAT dishes will form an integral part of SKA phase 1 -- further recognition of South Africa's excellence in designing and planning the MeerKAT project and the success of its KAT-7 precursor telescope. During a recent visit to the Karoo site and the SKA SA's office in Cape Town, a review panel consisting of top scientists from around the globe said that they were "blown away" by the excellent work of the South African MeerKAT team.
The first MeerKAT dish -- about 13,5 m diameter and with a novel "offset" design -- will be installed by the end of 2013. The new dish design will allow the telescope to be even more sensitive.
"This project is giving effect to our dream that Africa must become a global science and technology destination and that cutting-edge science will be done in Africa by African scientists," Pandor said. "Our SKA success is also reversing brain drain into brain gain by bringing top researchers to the continent to do cutting edge work on African soil."
"It was an enormous achievement for Africa to win the right to build the SKA here, but now the really challenging work starts," SKA project director Dr. Bernie Fanaroff explained. "The implementation phase ahead of us, including the extensive infrastructure, engineering and computing solutions that the SKA will require, will present us with a series of formidable challenges."
He explained why the enormous data volumes that the SKA will generate are expected to extend the frontiers of technology and deliver numerous beneficial spin-off technologies. The SKA will require processing speeds up to 1,000 times faster than the best supercomputers available today, as well as novel approaches to computer programming and the processing of complex data.
"We are getting to grips with what is required and we remain confident that we will be able to deliver a successful SKA," Fanaroff said. "We are working closely with the international SKA Office."
Building the SKA will be a global project paid for jointly by all member countries, but the fact that the dishes and fish eye lenses will be built here in Africa, and most of it within South Africa, places local industry in a strong position to compete for these huge contracts.
"The success of KAT-7 has caught the attention of astronomers around the world," Prof. Justin Jonas, SKA associate director explained. "KAT-7 was designed to be an engineering prototype to test systems and technologies for MeerKAT, but it is working so well that is it now in demand by scientists around the globe who want to use it for groundbreaking research."
Northern Cape Acting Premier Grizelda Cjiekella said that the Northern Cape Province is extremely proud to host the SKA, but that she was especially determined to use this project as a catalyst for encouraging young people in the region to work hard at science and mathematics at school so that they will be able to benefit from SKA bursaries to pursue SKA-related tertiary studies and become part of the SKA project team.
Jason Slaverse, grade 12 learner at Carnarvon High School, was also at the SKA site and the community event and spoke passionately about his dream to become an SKA scientist.
Minister Pandor thanked the media for their key role in sharing the SKA project with all South Africans and the rest of the world, emphasizing how important public support for the SKA was in the success of the SKA bid. She encouraged journalists to continue reporting on progress with the SKA project to make all South Africans proud of the country's achievements with this project.
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