The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Telescope project, the world’s most powerful radio telescope is moving towards Phase 1 and the Durban University of Technology is already involved in the project.
According to Stuart MacPherson and Gary van Vuuren who head up the Radio Astronomy Technology (RAT) Centre in the Department of Electronic Engineering, the Department embarked on an ambitious project to build the Indlebe Radio Telescope (IRT) IN 2006. The IRT is a small radio telescope and was constructed in order to provide project work for students.
“The involvement with the SKA SA started in 2008, with a visit to DUT by, amongst others, Professor Justin Jonas, Associate Director: Science and Engineering at SKA SA to see the progress that had been made on the IRT,” said MacPherson.
Following their visit, the SKA SA offered internships to students from the Department. In 2009, the first group of interns spent time at HartRAO, Carnarvon in the Northern Cape where MeerKAT and the SKA will be built and at the Cape Town offices of the SKA SA. This relationship has continued. Currently, 12 students are fully supported in their undergraduate (National Diploma and BTech) studies. Four students are from the African Partner Countries. To date, seven students have been awarded the National Diploma and five of these have returned for BTech studies.
“Two of our technicians have subsequently been employed permanently, one as an electronic technician at HartRAO and the other as a telescope operator with KAT-7. We are not directly involved in the project in terms of research but in terms of supplying them with human capital (technicians). The SKA project is currently in the pre-construction phase and is moving towards Phase One, which is due to start in 2016”, van Vuuren said.
Radio telescopes are used to study naturally occurring radio emissions from stars, galaxies, quasars and other astronomical objects. The SKA will be about 50 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope on Earth. It will allow scientists explore the origins of the first galaxies, stars and planets. If there is life somewhere else in the universe, the SKA will help find it.
The SKA is not one single instrument, but will consist of about 4 000 dish-shaped antennas and other hybrid receiving technologies. It will be split over Africa and Australia, with the major share of the telescope destined to be built in South Africa.
While South Africa will host the core part of the antenna, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia are co-hosts. For South Africa and its African partner countries, the telescope represents a new era where Africa is seen as a science destination and takes its place as an equal peer in global science.
MacPherson said the DUT students involved in the project will be exposed to state of the art technology. He said the University is hoping that its involvement will be expanded. “The SKA will need more technicians and we are well placed to meet this need. The DUT is the only University of Technology in South Africa which has a well-established Radio Astronomy Technology Centre and we expect that our students will continue to be supported by the SKA SA”.