Following the conclusion of the fourth Ministerial meeting of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Africa partner countries in Accra, Ghana, last month, members of the nine countries, represented by their science and technology Ministers and Deputy Ministers, signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on radio astronomy.
Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia form part of the African SKA consortium that is preparing for the eventual implementation of Phase 2 of the global SKA project.
The SKA, currently being built in Australia and Africa, will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The telescope will have a total collecting area of about 1 km2, providing 50 times the sensitivity and 10 000 times the survey speed of the best current-day telescopes.
The purpose of the meeting was to review the progress of three joint flagship projects – the African SKA, the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) and the Big Data Africa initiative – through which the African SKA is preparing itself for the implementation of SKA Phase 2.
The meeting also reviewed progress in the development of human capital, the establishment of relevant institutional arrangements to coordinate and support domestic SKA- and AVN- related activities, the formulation of new academic programmes around physics and astronomy, site selection and the roll-out of high-performance computing capabilities.
The AVN project aims to establish self-sufficient radio telescopes in Africa through the conversion of redundant telecommunications antennae into radio telescopes, through “new-build” telescopes, or into training facilities with training telescopes.
The project is jointly funded with about R141-million from the African Renaissance Fund of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) and the Department of Science and Technology in South Africa.
Representatives at the meeting expressed appreciation for the progress of the development of the AVN project, particularly with Ghana being the first of the eight partner countries of the AVN to complete the conversion of a communications antenna into a functioning radio telescope.
The Ministers further congratulated Ghana on the pending launch of the Kuntunse radio astronomy telescope and the establishment of the Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory, and noted the support provided by the South African SKA project in these initiatives.
As radio telescopes naturally produce large quantities of data, the meeting agreed that there is a need for advanced computing infrastructure, training and skills development to process the data and support broad research applications.
Meanwhile, current Big Data initiatives being rolled out in partnership between South Africa and the member countries include the work being done by South Africa’s Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC), which is repurposing HPC systems and channelling them to the AVN partner countries to develop a footprint of high-performance computing capacity to process high volumes of data.
Several funding sources for the building of the SKA in Africa are also being considered, including the European Union, which can possibly support the African Data Intensive Research Cloud, and Dirco’s African Renaissance Fund, which can further support the AVN.
In addition, possible support through a funding proposal writing workshop will be explored by South Africa through the Southern African Development Community Secretariat.
On the identification of the location of the second phase of the SKA, the partner countries will engage through bilateral meetings with the SKA project office in South Africa to develop a detailed roadmap. Consultations will start in 2018.
South Africa will host the next meeting of senior officials and the Ministerial Forum in mid-2018. This is to coincide with the formal launch of the MeerKAT telescope, a precursor instrument to the SKA.