South African Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor announced on Friday that the country's radio telescope array, MeerKAT, would be ready for science by the end of June this year. By then, 21 antennas would be mounted and ready. "This is excellent progress," she affirmed.
MeerKAT, which will have 64 dish antennas when completed, is intended to be both a major astronomical instrument in its own right and a precursor to the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, the core elements of which will be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia. Pandor was giving the opening address at the third SKA African Partner Countries Ministerial Meeting at Muldersdrift, north-west of Johannesburg.
"The memorandum of understanding for institutionalising cooperation for radio astronomy between the African partner countries, agreed at our last meeting, is ready for signing at this meeting," she reported. The conversion of an obsolete telecommunications dish into a radio astronomy antenna in SKA African partner Ghana was going very well. It was providing valuable lessons for similar conversions, planned to take place in the other African partner countries.
"We've [also] made excellent progress in a number of areas with big data development, using the SKA as a catalyst," she highlighted. "I think we're beginning to see some really exciting opportunities and programmes arising from this. ... Plans are under way for a national level data facility for MeerKAT, initially." Later, this would be adapted to serve the SKA and other instruments.
Up to 100 young big data scientists will be trained in South Africa over the next five years. A joint project with Dutch astronomy agency Astron and US group IBM had been started, to develop a prototype big data system for the SKA.
"All the initiatives we have towards developing new young scientists have involved all the African [SKA partner] countries," she pointed out. Big data investment in Africa was probably essential if Africa was going to play a major role in the future global economy. Pandor stressed that, when development was collaborative, a lot of resources were saved but both national and continental capabilities were developed.
SKA South Africa's human capital development (HCD) programme had recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, she stressed. It has trained some 700 people so far, including at undergraduate, Honours, Masters and PhD level. "This is absolutely exciting!" These figures include 133 students from other African countries, of which 91 came from the African partner countries. "They're going back home to continue science work."
Support was also being given to schools in Carnarvon, the nearest town to the MeerKAT/SKA site. As a result, five Carnarvon children have achieved university entrance in mathematics and science and have been awarded bursaries by the HCD programme to study these disciplines at university.
"The SKA remains, therefore, an important African endeavour," she concluded. It had huge potential to raise the profile of science and technology across the continent.