The agency responsible for South Africa’s hosting of and contribution to the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, SKA South Africa (SKA SA), and the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) recently signed an agreement to extend their cooperation for another five years. (South Africa will house the major part of Phase 1 of the SKA, with the rest being set up in Australia.)
SKA SA is also responsible for the country’s KAT-7 radio telescope array and the MeerKAT radio telescope array programme. The NRAO is the US agency responsible for cooperation with the international SKA Organisation, which oversees the SKA programme.
(The NRAO is a supporter, but for budgetary reasons not yet a member, of the SKA project.)
“Radio astronomy in both countries will bene- fit from sharing expertise resulting from recent expansions and upgrades to several radio astro- nomy facilities in the US and the construction of the KAT-7 and the MeerKAT in South Africa,” cited SKA SA director Dr Bernie Fanaroff. “Scientists in the US are keen to collaborate with South Africa in the construction of the MeerKAT telescope as a precursor to the SKA, because they recognise that the MeerKAT will be a world-leading and very exciting telescope in its own right.”
The new agreement allows both institutions to pool their high-level project expertise and resources concerning the development and implementation of software, the latest technology receiving systems and data processing and archiving. The two agencies will also have joint workshops and exchange staff and students. They also intend to set up joint research and development activities.
“The collaboration agreement renews long-standing ties between SKA SA and the NRAO and comes at a time when a major push is required in algorithms, software and computing to support the new and upgraded facilities in the US and South Africa,” affirmed SKA SA GM for science computing and innovation Dr Jasper Horrell. “We are talking here of cutting-edge work in high-performance computing and algorithms that is of great significance for radio astronomy worldwide.”
The NRAO falls under the US National Science Foundation and is responsible for the provision of advanced radio telescope facilities to US and international scientists. Founded in 1956, it owns and operates three major radio astronomy instruments.
One is the Robert C Byrd Green Bank Telescope, commissioned in 2000, which has a 110 m × 100 m dish and is the world’s most sensitive single-dish radio telescope. The NRAO also has the Very Large Array (VLA) of 27 dishes, each 25 m in diameter, which are ope- rated as a single instrument, and which was originally commissioned in 1980. The VLA’s electronics and software have been considerably upgraded (in a joint project with Canada and Mexico) in a programme designated the Expanded Very Large Array, increasing its sensitivity by more than ten times. It is now designated the Karl G Jansky VLA. The observatory’s third currently operational system is the Very Long Baseline Array, composed of ten radio telescopes spread over more than 8 600 km across the US, from Hawaii in the west through California, Washington state, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Iowa and New Hampshire to the US Virgin Islands in the east.
The US agency is also a partner, with Europe, Japan, Taiwan and Chile, in the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (better known as Alma) radio telescope, the first phase of which comprises 66 dishes. Alma was officially inaugurated, and started operation, in 2011, although not all its dishes had then been assembled.