Space boffins meet in Cape Town


5 October 2011

Africa’s involvement in space activities would help address the challenges of telecommunications, energy and food insecurity on the continent, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies said on the opening day of the 62nd International Astronautical Congress in Cape Town on Monday.

The International Astronautical Federation’s prestigious annual congress, this year themed “African Astronaissance”, has attracted thousands of space players from around the globe. It runs through to Friday at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

This is the first time the congress is being hosted in Africa, and is good timing for South Africa as it bids to host the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope.

The Congress also coincides with World Space Week, an annual global space celebration taking place in 55 countries around the world from 4 to 10 October.

Africa ‘the new pole of growth’

Davies said it was no accident that Africa was hosting the event, as the continent was emerging as “the new pole of growth” in a fast-changing global economy.

The minister said that South Africa’s space policy was based on promoting peace, adding that the country was on the verge of concluding a deal with India for use of space for “peaceful purposes.”

International Astronautical Federation (IAF) president Berndt Feuerbacher said that his organization had 205 members, which was set to swell to 220 by the end of the conference as more African countries signed up and an African regional group was established.

Feuerbacher said the IAF believed that space was not a “playground” for rich countries only, as it brought value to all mankind.

No newcomer to major league astronomy

South Africa is no newcomer to major league astronomy. The country has been short-listed to host the Square Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international €1.5-billion project to build the world’s largest radio telescope.

The Northern Cape is already home to one of the world’s largest telescopes, the Southern African Large Telescope or SALT.

South Africa also works closely with neighbour Nambia on the HESS gamma ray telescope, and is currently building an 80-dish precursor instrument for the SKA, the Karoo Array Telescope (also known as the MeerKAT).

Regardless of whether South Africa wins the SKA bid, the MeerKAT will be a powerful scientific instrument in its own right, comprising 80 dishes each 13.5-metres in diameter. It is being built adjacent to the site proposed for the SKA, in a radio astronomy reserve near the small town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, where it is due to be commissioned in 2014/15.

An engineering test bed of seven dishes, called the KAT-7, is already complete.

In the process of building the MeerKAT, South African engineers are already working on some of the SKA’s technological building blocks – such as a prototype dish antenna that combines new materials with innovative design processes to meet the SKA’s exacting precision, durability and cost criteria.

Skills development and training

The SKA South Africa project, including the MeerKAT telescope, is one of the biggest science and engineering projects in South Africa. It thus represents an unrivalled opportunity for the development of very high-level science and technology expertise – paving the way for Africa to contribute significantly to the global knowledge economy and global technology trade.

These technologies include very fast grid computing, very fast data transport, data storage, wireless engineering, digital electronics, image processing and software development.

In 2005, the South African SKA project initiated a targeted “Youth into Science and Engineering Programme” to develop highly skilled young scientists and engineers.

“The young people supported by this programme will serve South Africa, and our African partner countries, in the future in key areas of economic development in addition to their participation in ‘blue skies’ scientific research,” says SKA South Africa’s Kim de Boer.

The programme offers comprehensive bursaries to students in engineering, mathematics, physics and astronomy at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Bursary holders also benefit from regular workshops and conferences where they interact with the world’s leading astronomers.


SAinfo reporter and BuaNews