MeerKAT reaches for the stars
Launched just days before the 100th birthday of former President Nelson Mandela, the MeerKAT radio telescope has brought much more than big science and astronomical research to the Karoo.
Located an hour’s drive from Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, the MeerKAT has increased economic activity in Carnarvon and surrounding towns through jobs, skills and education as well as business opportunities for local contractors since the first MeerKAT dish was installed in 2014.
Deputy President David Mabuza said at the launch that localisa- tion derived a huge benefit for the project, with 75 percent of the components that went into the construction of the 64 dishes being sourced locally.
“During construction, more than R134 million was spent on local suppliers, and 351 people were trained by major Square Kilometre Array (SKA) contractors. In addition, more than R110 million was awarded to 16 small and medium enterprises through a financial assistance programme.
“This has empowered local industry and insti- tutions to acquire skills and expertise in advanced technologies, and to grow their international competitiveness.
“There is no doubt that the launch of the MeerKAT further strengthens the prospects of a larger role for South Africa in the construction of the SKA, and promises numerous benefits for the country and the region as a whole,” he said.
The MeerKAT, which has been billed as the most sensitive radio telescope in the world, is a precur- sor to the SKA telescope, which – upon its completion – will be the biggest radio telescope in the world.
A giant leap
Ahead of the Deputy President’s address, Dr Fernando Camilo, the Chief Scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observtory (SARAO), unveiled the clearest view yet of the centre of the Milky Way as observed by the MeerKAT, saying the completion of the MeerKAT was a giant leap in science.
“The centre of the Milky Way, 25 000 light-years away from Earth and lying behind the constellation Sagittarius (the “Teapot”), is forever enshrouded by intervening clouds of gas and dust, making it invisible from Earth using ordinary telescopes. However, infra-red, x- ray and, in particular, radio wave-lengths penetrate the obscuring dust and open a window into this distinctive region with its unique four million solar mass black hole.
“Although it’s early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be opti- mised, we decided
to go for it – and were stunned by the results,” he explained.
Creating jobs, boosting tourism
In a launch event that was also attended by ministers, including Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane and her predecessor Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor the telescope operator moved the beautiful 64th dish of the MeerKAT telescope in a manner that it appeared to give the Deputy President a salute.
Deputy President Mabuza said that the MeerKAT project has left a visible impact on the real estate sector of the Northern Cape, which has led to new economic opportunities for local communities.
“It gives me pleasure that the SKA project has had a direct impact on job creation thus changing the lives of many families. The SKA project has created 7 284 employment opportunities through the construction of the MeerKAT and related projects.
“These include land acquisition, the resurfacing of 80km of road to the site, the construction of 110km of power lines, fibre rollout, as well as the MeerKAT data cen- tre,” he said.
Human capital development
The Deputy President added that the SKA project’s sustainability has been strengthened by its human capital development programme.
“The programme has awarded 961 bursaries in science and engineering, including 133 bursaries for recipients from other African countries.
“SKA South Africa also introduced mathematics and science at the local school and employed a teacher for these subjects. Currently, learners from the surrounding towns of Carnarvon are accommo- dated at the hostel at Carnarvon High School to study these subjects,” he said.
Through this initiative, seven learners obtained good passes and are enrolled at various universities. “The number of Carnarvon High School learners that are benefiting from fullcost undergraduate bursaries and technical and vocational education and training college funding continues to grow.
“The SKA will further assist local schools with programmes in school management, numeracy and literacy development, and early childhood development.
“The importance of early child- hood development in producing future scientists cannot be over- emphasised as this lays the foun- dation for holistic development, while cultivating lifelong learning,” he added.
In one of former Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor’s visits to the area, she launched the 80km road and a temporary technical training centre in order to create a pool of artisans and semi-skilled workers in Carnarvon and nearby towns. To date, 21 students who gradu- ated from the centre have found employment at the SKA.
“A further 25 are currently undergoing work-based experiential learning at the SKA and will complete trade tests in 2019 with the prospect of being employed on the project.
“There will be further local partnerships and tourism projects that will support this SKA,” the Deputy President said.
Increase in tourism
Sharon Lewis, the CEO of the Northern Cape Tourism Authority, said ever since the construction of the MeerKAT commenced four years ago, tourism in the area has been on the rise.
“When the project came, people… started expanding their facilities, new guesthouses came on board. In terms of statistics, I am proud to announce that the Northern Cape has more than doubled its tourism figures into the province. And more so, because of the impact of the economy, South Afri- cans are travelling local… and because of the science, people are bringing their children here to come and stay here, to come and see what’s here,” she