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SKA Africa an important science and technology endeavour for the entire continent

Johannesburg/Brussels, 25 April 2016 - “The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project remains an important endeavour for Africa, with huge potential to contribute to and raise the profile of science, technology and innovation,” said Naledi Pandor, the South African Minister of Science and Technology, at the 3rd Annual SKA African Partner Countries Ministerial Meeting which took place on 15 April 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The meeting brought together the ministers and senior officials from SKA project partner countries: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia. The SKA project is being constructed in Australia and South Africa. Parts of the telescope will also be constructed in the other 8 African partners. The SKA Project is an international enterprise to build the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world that will be about 50 times more sensitive than any other existing radio telescope. A Memorandum of Understanding for institutionalising cooperation in radio astronomy among the SKA African partners was signed at the meeting. The memorandum aims at strengthening the cooperation among the 9 partner countries of the SKA; building a competent community and institutional capacity in universities, research institutions and government departments in the field of radio-astronomy; and strengthening the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) project. The SKA and the AVN will be among the most advanced radio astronomy arrays in the world. “Excellent progress” of SKA At the meeting, Minister Pandor announced that the Array Release 1 (or AR1) of the MeerKAT project, a precursor to the SKA telescope, will be operational by end June this year. AR1 will be made up of 16 receptors; each comprises an antenna equipped with its own receivers, digitisers and other essential electronics. The final MeerKAT will comprise 64 antennas. The design and procurement of the 1st phase of the SKA are also making good progress. Big Data infrastructure required to process huge amounts of data A national-level data facility for astronomical data is planned, which will service MeerKAT initially and then be expanded to include data from other South African facilities. This is likely to grow from a MeerKAT-focused archive to be hosted by the Centre for High Performance Computing but supplied and managed by SKA South Africa. A joint project has been established with Astron (the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy) and IBM in order to prototype SKA science and data regional centre activities using the archives of the MeerKAT and LOFAR (Low Frequency Array built by the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy). Another example of African commitment to big data leadership is the establishment of the African Research Cloud, which is a part of the Big Data Africa project. Among its objectives is to help build the capacity and expertise in Africa in Big Data and data science in general, to ensure that African countries are able to participate in the scientific, technical, social and economic benefits of Big Data. Its initial activities will be centred on the processing of astronomy data, mainly from the AVN and the SKA. Investing in the human capital in Africa In November 2015 the Inter-University Centre for Data Intensive Astrophysics (IDIA) was established at the Universities of Cape Town, the Western Cape, the North West and Pretoria, with additional universities set to join in the coming years. This is a timely intervention as the new institute plans to provide training in SKA-driven data-science research for up to 100 young data scientists over the next 5 years. SKA South Africa itself has a significant human capital programme: over the past 10 years, over 800 academics, post-doctoral fellows, students, and artisans in training have been funded by SKA South Africa. Cooperation in radio-astronomy science has been a priority focus area for Africa—EU cooperation. This has been recognized at the level of the African Union and was the focus of a European Parliament written declaration on Science Capacity Building in Africa: promoting European-African radio astronomy partnerships. One of the outcomes has been the establishment of the Africa Europe Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP), a stakeholder forum convened to define priorities for radio-astronomy cooperation between Africa and Europe.


South Africa