The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory MeerKAT cluster. Photo supplied by SKAO
The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory MeerKAT cluster. Photo supplied by SKAO

SA’s Square Kilometre Array Observatory site launched

By Mwangi Githahu Time of article published Feb 10, 2021

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Cape Town - The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO), a new intergovernmental organisation dedicated to radio astronomy, has been launched following the first meeting of the Observatory’s council.

The new observatory is the world’s second intergovernmental organisation to be dedicated to astronomy and is headquartered in the UK on the grounds of the Jodrell Bank Unesco World Heritage Site at Manchester University and will have sites in South Africa and Australia.

SKAO spokesperson William Garnier said the observatory was tasked with building and operating the two largest and most complex radio telescope networks ever conceived to address fundamental questions about the universe.

SKAO’s telescope in South Africa will be composed of 197 dishes which will be 15m in diameter located in the Karoo region, 64 of which already exist and are operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (Sarao), while the telescope in Australia will be composed of 131 072 antennas which will be 2m tall and located on the Commonwealth scientific and industrial research organisation’s (CSIRO) Murchison radio-astronomy observatory.

SKAO headquarters on the grounds of the Jodrell Bank Unesco World Heritage Site at Manchester University. Picture: Supplied

Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande said: “Establishment of the SKA observatory enables the SKA project to enter an exciting phase which is the implementation of cutting edge scientific and technical designs that have been conceptualised by multinational teams, including many South African scientists and engineers, over the past few years.”

He added: “We are excited by the fact that the SKA observatory will be the first, and only, science inter-governmental organisation where Africa will play a strategic leading role.

“The SKA project will act as a catalyst for science, technology and engineering innovation, providing commercial opportunities to local hi-tech industry, and creating the potential to put Africa on the map as a global science and innovation partner.”

SKAO council chairperson Catherine Cesarsky said: “Behind today’s milestone, there are countries that had the vision to get deeply involved because they saw the wider benefits their participation in SKAO could bring to build an ecosystem of science and technology involving fundamental research, computing, engineering and skills for the next generation, which are essential in a 21st century digital economy.”

At its first meeting, the council approved policies and procedures prepared in recent months covering governance, funding, programmatic and HR matters, among others.

SKAO director-general Philip Diamond said: “SKAO will begin recruitment in Australia and South Africa in the next few months, working alongside local partners CSIRO and Sarao to supervise construction, which is expected to last eight years, with early science opportunities starting in the mid-2020s.”

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