By: Chinyere Onyeaghala, AfricaSTI
South Africa is forging ahead with its space programme regardless of the decision to site the multi-million dollar project in the country or not as it unfolded plans to allocate $26 million to the training of astronomers over the next five years.
Speaking to journalists about South Africa’s ambitions to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)—a US$2 billion radio telescope it is competing against Australia to build— the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor said the money would sponsor undergraduate and postgraduate students.
The funding would pay for the training of 10 postdocs, 30 PhDs, 30 MScs, 40 undergraduates and 24 national diplomas by the end of the five-year period.
Since 2005, the government has sponsored nearly 400 bursaries from undergraduate to PhD level, Pandor said. Of these, 70 have gone to Africans from outside South Africa.
At the breifing, Pandor reiterated that Africa is ready to host the Square Kilo- metre Array (SKA) project.
A decision last week shifted the announcement on where the SKA project will ultimately be based.
Australia is also in the running to host the international science project.
It emerged that the final decision might be delayed as the members of the SKA Organisation consider inputs that could affect the decision. The recommendations of the independent SKA site advisory committee (SSCA) had been referred to the members of by the SKA board and would be central to their considerations.
South Africa and Australia emerged as the two remaining contestants for the project in 2006, after the international SKA steering committee identified the countries as the most suitable locations for the development.
In March, Australian media leaked that the $2.5-billion project was likely to be awarded to the South African-led consortium, following a scientific panel recommendation. But it had been reported subsequently that Australian politicians were engaged in a series of sometimes aggressive lobbying efforts to salvage their bid.
Pandor pointed out that South Africa’s efforts had been recognised when the Euro-pean Parliament recently adopted declaration No 45 on ‘Science capacity building Africa: strengthening European-Africa radio astron-omy partnerships’.
Pandor refused to engage in a debate with her Australian counterpart, but was adamant that South Africa and its SKA partner countries had a proposition that was scientifically and technically superior, as well as cost competitive.
Asked what the Ministry is planning on doing with the infrastructure that was already in place for the project, should South Africa lose the bid, Pandor answered: “Plan A is that Africa is ready to host the SKA project. Plan B is that Africa is ready to host the SKA project. The same goes for Plan C. We must emphasise that we are ready.”
The African bid to host the SKA is led by South Africa and includes eight partner countries, namely Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. Pandor also announced that the Angolan government had committed itself to the project.
Should South Africa win the bid, it would result in the building and implementation of more than 3 000 satellite dishes across the country and the rest of Africa. This will see an array of dishes with a total radio wave receiving area of one square kilometre, which will be the world’s most powerful radio telescope built to date, as well as the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere.
She also reiterated the benefits the SKA project could hold for the continent. “Developing large-scale astronomy facilities such as the MeerKAT and the SKA can become powerful drivers of socioeconomic development in the region.
“Further, the main benefits will be in the area of human capital development, while telescope construction and infrastructure will generate construction employment in South Africa and the African partner countries,” Pandor added.
The project also has the potential to expand the number of Africa’s scientists and technicians and will allow South Africa and Africa to play an increasingly important role in the global knowledge economy.
“Since 2005, 398 SKA postdoctoral fellow-ships and PhD, MSc and undergraduate bur-saries have been awarded – 70 to Africans, outside South Africa. To date R55-million has been spent on the human capital development programme. “From 2012 to 2017, an additional R200-million-plus will be spent.
“We are entirely committed to the success of the SKA and believe that it will be best achieved in Africa,” she concluded. (Additional reporting from Engineering News)