SKA-Mid will comprise an array of 197 dishes, including 64 dishes of the MeerKAT telescope. A large concentration of the dishes will be in the core, while others will span out along three spiral arms, stretching 150 kilometres end to end.
SKA-Mid will be located in the Northern Cape, a legislated radio controlled zone in remote Karoo region, around 450kms north-east of Cape Town, and 60kms west of the town of Carnarvon.
A brief history of South Africa’s involvement with the SKAO
South Africa is one of the founding members of the SKAO and its involvement with the project goes back more than 2 decades ago.
In 2012, after a nine-year bidding process, South Africa, together with its eight African Partner Countries, was named as co-hosts for the SKA telescopes, together with Australia.
South Africa will host the SKA Observatory’s mid-frequency telescope (SKA-Mid), initially made up of 197 dishes, incorporating the 64-dish MeerKAT telescope. A future expansion consisting in hundreds of radio dishes spanning across Africa is also considered in a later phase.
Already, many young people in South Africa are benefiting from SKA bursaries to study astronomy, engineering, computer science and other related fields.
During the design phase of the telescopes, South Africa has been heavily involved in many of the international design consortia, with expert participation across several institutions, universities, and industry partners in the country. A large number of these partners will remain engaged during the construction phase, having been awarded construction contracts by the SKAO.
The vibrant South African radio astronomy community is also in constant growth thanks to a number of training and bursary programmes developed by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and South African Universities.
The SKA in Africa
SARAO, a National Facility of the National Research Foundation, is responsible for implementing South Africa’s strategic investments in radio astronomy. This includes the construction and operation of the MeerKAT Radio Telescope in the Karoo -which will eventually be integrated into SKA-Mid-, the coordination of the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) for the eight SKA partner countries in Africa (Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia), as well as South Africa’s contribution to the planning and construction of the SKA-Mid telescope.
To maximise the return on South Africa’s investment in radio astronomy, SARAO manages programmes to create capacity in radio astronomy science and engineering research, and the technical capacity required to support site operations.
South Africa has already demonstrated its excellent science and engineering skills by designing and building the MeerKAT telescope, whose extension, currently underway and including contribution from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (Germany) and the National Institute for Radio Astrophysics (Italy), will add 16 new dishes to the array.
South African businesses will lead construction of SKA-Mid infrastructure in Australia and contribute to the development of new technologies used in the SKA project. Developing cutting-edge technology for the SKAO will expose businesses to new skills and capabilities, making them more competitive and opening up new market opportunities.
South Africa is home to two SKA precursor telescopes, namely MeerKAT and HERA. MeerKAT is a world-leading telescope in its own right, and its development has provided crucial design, assembly and deployment guidance and lessons learned for the SKA project.
The MeerKAT telescope at a glance
The MeerKAT telescope is an array of 64 interlinked receptors (a receptor is the complete antenna structure, with the main reflector, sub-reflector and all receivers, digitisers and other electronics installed).
The configuration (placement) of the receptors is determined by the science objectives of the telescope. Of the 64 receptors, 48 are concentrated in the core area which is approximately 1km in diameter.
The longest distance between any two receptors (the so-called maximum baseline) is 8km.
Why the name MeerKAT?
The telescope was originally known as the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) that would consist of 20 receptors. When the South African government increased the budget to allow the building of 64 receptors, the team re-named it “MeerKAT” – that it “more of KAT”. The MeerKAT (scientific name Suricata suricatta) is also a much beloved small mammal that lives in the Karoo region.
The seven-dish MeerKAT precursor array, KAT-7, is the world’s first radio telescope array consisting of composite antenna structures. It was primarily built as a precursor to the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope array and to demonstrate South Africa’s ability to host the SKA. However, it has proved to be a pioneering scientific instrument in its own right.
KAT-7 is considered a compact radio telescope, since its antennas all lie within an area only 200m across, as opposed to the much larger areas that will be occupied by MeerKAT and the SKA. The KAT-7 configuration is perfect for observing nearby galaxies, which emit radio waves on a large scale.
Scientific discoveries of the MeerKAT radio telescope
Since its launch is July 2018, the MeerKAT telescope has made a number of scientific discoveries with unprecedented clarity and depth.
Bernie Fanaroff, former director of SKA South Africa project that built MeerKAT, said: “MeerKAT was designed to be the best of its kind in the world. It’s wonderful to see how its unique capabilities are contributing to resolving longstanding questions related to the evolution of galaxies.”
Benefits for South Africa
MeerKAT and the SKA project were declared one of 18 Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPs) in 2012. The SIPs are recognised as key drivers towards delivery of the National Development Plan, which is intended to transform the economic landscape in the country, create a significant number of new jobs, strengthen the delivery of basic services and support the integration of African economies.
MeerKAT and the SKA project have brought, and will undoubtedly bring about change in the Karoo region. The surrounding towns have been positively affected by the project since the start of the KAT-7 project, a precursor to MeerKAT. To date, SKAO partner SARAO has, through the construction of MeerKAT and KAT-7, invested in the Local Economies directly and indirectly. From inception of KAT-7 to 2020, R306-million (corresponding to ~€18-million) was spent in the broader Northern Cape province (supplies, material, diesel etc.), R156-million (~€9-million) was spent at local suppliers in Carnarvon Williston, Brandvlei and Vanwyksvlei; and a further R222-million (~€13-million) was paid in Northern Cape salaries.
Over the next few years, various opportunities will arise through ongoing development and construction activities. In the short term, a significant investment will be undertaken through the construction of the MeerKAT+ (MeerKAT extension) project, with up to 30% of the value of the infrastructure contract aimed at local contractor participation.
The SKAO and its partner SARAO are committed to creating an enabling environment that will position local contractors to participate in local opportunities. In order to do this, SARAO has been identifying various challenges faced by local small, medium, and micro enterprises (SMMEs) in respect of procurement opportunities made available through the MeerKAT+ project. These have informed a number of interventions undertaken by SARAO to create a more enabling environment for participation of local SMMEs.
In particular, requirements for Local Participation Plans and Performance Measures have been included in the two SKAO infrastructure bids. Local participation requirements include local employment, training, corporate social investment, local supplier development and the use of local suppliers and contractors from the 4 towns surrounding the SKA site and extending to the Northern Cape.
Local participation requirements will also be included in the SKAO bid to appoint an Independent Power Producer who will be constructing a central photovoltaic plant close to the SKA-Mid Site and standalone photovoltaic plants to supply the dishes with power in the spiral arms.
An SKA visitor centre is also under consideration in a nearby town to the SKA-Mid telescope.