Two of the country’s top research institutions, the recently established South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (Sarao) and the South African Environmental Observation Network (Saeon) have signed a memorandum of agreement (MoA) to execute the Integrated Environmental Management Plan (IEMP) for the South Africa-based (Karoo-located) element of Phase 1 of the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope (SKA1). The MoA covers three years, and construction of SKA1 is due to start next year.
Sarao and Saeon are both national research facilities, managed by the National Research Foundation (NRF). Sarao is responsible for the South African contribution to the SKA programme, as well as for all the country’s radio telescopes and radio astronomy programmes. Saeon is the “national platform” that uses scientifically designed observation systems and research to detect, translate and predict environmental change, as well as collecting data it makes freely available; it has six “nodes” which are geographically distributed around the country.
“This agreement will enable our [Karoo] site for radio astronomy research to become a site for Earth observation research too,” pointed out Sarao MD Dr Rob Adam. “It is strategic alignments like this one that create new opportunities for integrative science and provide new platforms for the training of the next generation of scientists,” observed NRF deputy CEO Dr Clifford Nxomani.
The IEMP will be updated every three years. It contains recommendations on how the SKA will be built and operated, within the Karoo environment, on the measures to be taken to reduce its impact on the environment and to increase its environmental benefit. It incorporates a monitoring and auditing programme that will permit an “adaptive and dynamic environmental monitoring framework” (in the words of the press release) that will be periodically adjusted.
The creation of the IEMP was the outcome of a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the SKA programme, which was undertaken by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research on behalf of the Department of Environmental Affairs. The mission statement for the SEA says it is “to provide a platform to coordinate research and data collection within the SKA Phase 1 study area and integrate the environmental authorisation process ensuring that environmental factors are adequately considered and environmental principles implemented at the strategic planning stage.”
The MoA covers some 130 000 ha of land in the Karoo. All the land required for the reserve that will contain the South African core of SKA1 has been acquired. There will also be three arms radiating out from this core area in a spiral pattern. Currently, negotiations are under way with landowners to conclude servitude agreements for SKA outstations that will be positioned along these arms. The second element of SKA1 will be built in Australia. The two elements will carry out their observations at different frequencies.