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Unisa online - SKA reaches for the stars

A sunrise symbolizing South Africa’s bright future in astronomy.

Prof Derck Smits is excited about the possibilities of the SKA.

It may be a relatively long time still to go, but eventually, the world will be able to view Galaxies far, far, away. There was a chorus of excitement throughout the heavens, as South Africa, along with Australia, won the right to host the majority of telescopes for the Square Kilometre Array Project (SKA).

The SKA is an array of extremely powerful radio dishes that will have a surface collecting area of one square kilometre, making it the most sensitive radio telescope ever constructed. It will have arms extending several thousand kilometres from a central core; it will be capable of taking high quality images of radio-emitting astronomical objects. In Africa, the core of the array will be situated near Carnarvon in the Karoo, with arms of the telescope extending into Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Madagascar, and Mauritius.

Prof Derck Smits, (Astronomy Section of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Unisa), believes the SKA project will have huge spin-offs. “The SKA is a 2 billion Euro project which means a lot of money will be flowing into the country to make it happen.  This will provide employment for a lot of people for a good few years and industry will benefit from the project.”

The main purpose of the array will be to explore basic research of the past, present and future of the Universe. “With the SKA we will be able to understand more about how the Universe has evolved since its birth with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago and what the Universe is made of.  So, we might be able to get some idea of what will happen to the Universe over the next few billion years,” he explains.

Despite the negative criticism from some quarters on the SKA, Prof Smits says it should rather be viewed in a positive light. “To keep up with 21st century technology and the most recent advances a country needs scientists and engineers. This means that we are growing the expertise of the nation and providing an incentive for studying science and engineering.”

News of the SKA has generated a great deal of excitement in local scientific circles with the South African Institute of Physics calling it a “game changer.” Currently, South Africa is building a premier mid-frequency radio telescope, the Karoo Array Telescope (known as MeerKAT).  The construction of the first seven dishes (called KAT-7), is under way on the site in the Karoo.

The CAT 7 sits below one of the many stars it will map and view.

The CAT 7 array in the Karoo, an example of South Africa’s expertise in astronomy.

The MeerKAT array will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until the SKA is completed in 2024.

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