On Monday, the Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation, Blade Nzimande, announced the commencement of construction of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) telescopes infrastructure in Carnarvon, Northern Cape.
According to Nzimande, radio astronomy has started to revolutionise the knowledge of the cosmos.
The Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation praised the creation of the SKAO as a key innovation that would give data to push the boundaries of current cosmology’s explanations.
“I cannot help but be intrigued by the idea that significant discoveries on cosmological origins may well be made on African soil through the work of the SKA – the very place where we know through science the origin of all humanity is found,” Nzimande said.
The Minister spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for the world’s biggest radio astronomy infrastructure and telescopes in South Africa and Australia.
The event represents a major milestone, since the project has been in the works for thirty years, involving numerous years of design and engineering work.
“SKA is pioneering, and in some ways unique international scientific project which demonstrates the power of multilateral collaboration in science to help us tackle the big challenges of humanity,” he told delegates.
“We owe a great deal to people who have worked incredibly hard to make this day possible, and it would not do justice to mention all.”
Nzimande offered gratitude to the SKAO leadership, the governments of the SKA’s international partners, and the managerial, scientific, and technical employees in South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other countries who are working on this ground-breaking initiative.
He also emphasised China, a critical partner for the SKA as the builder of the mid-frequency array’s telescope dishes.
He applauded the awarding of the SKA-mid infrastructure contract to a South African business as part of the Karoo construction of the mid-frequency components of the SKA telescope.
Electricity Adenco Joint Venture was granted the contract to construct the main civil infrastructure, which includes the spread of power, fibre, and roads. This was the largest contract awarded by SKAO to a South African business, totaling close to R890 million.
Contracts with a total estimated value of R1.2 billion have been given to South African firms, with further contracts anticipated.
In addition, he said that the lease of buildings to be completed and SKAO’s continuous technical maintenance and operations for the next 50 years would provide South Africa with long-term, sustainable foreign investment and about 11,200 construction jobs over the next six years.
In the meanwhile, he said that the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) would continue to spend around R80 million year through bursary schemes to build the necessary capabilities in South Africa and the African partner nations.
He said that the SARAO will provide around 100 bursaries annually to craftsmen, technicians, astronomers, engineers, and data specialists, among others.
Nzimande said that South Africa’s investment in the advancement of astronomy, notably the MeerKAT radio telescope, had yielded socioeconomic benefits over the previous five years.
This involves the installation of 110 kilometres of overhead power lines, the resurfacing of 80 kilometres of road, and the building of intricate foundations for the 64 dishes, which resulted in the creation of over 8,700 direct and indirect employment for the local communities around the SKA site.
The MeerKAT radio telescope is a forerunner to the SKA telescope and will be included into phase one of the SKA’s mid-frequency component.
The telescope was finished in 2018 at a cost of R3.2 billion with 75% local content, which stimulated the local economy via the fabrication of different telescope components.
The Minister said that 1,400 grants and scholarships were given in the fields of science and engineering.
In addition, over 400 technicians have been trained in skills linked to the telescope’s construction.
Throughout the building phase of the MeerKAT, more than R130 million was spent on local companies.