Construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a strategic infrastructure project that is being overseen by the Presidential Infrastructure Co-ordinating Committee. And it is anticipated that this will lead to new innovations in manufacturing and construction, according to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“The SKA forms part of efforts to transform South Africa’s economy through human capital development, innovation, value addition, industrialisation and entrepreneurship,” he said, speaking at the SKA site in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape on 28 February.
He said the project would create jobs not only during the next decade or so of construction, but also for the next 50 years of operation and maintenance. “The SKA project, which is aligned with the African Union’s 10-year Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa, will help to drive human capital development on the continent. It will contribute to Africa’s efforts to build innovation-led, knowledge- based economies.”
This was part of efforts that sought to harness science, technology and innovation to advance the continent’s developmental goals. The SKA is a global science and engineering project to build the world’s largest radio telescope, and Ramaphosa said it would collect and process vast amounts of data, which would require and encourage significant advances in high-performance computing.
“Producing the thousands of dishes required for the SKA will demand an entirely new way of building highly sophisticated and sensitive scientific instruments.”
Youth development
The 699 students and postdoctoral fellows who had been supported through the SKA South Africa bursary and fellowship programme were at the forefront of leading the project, said Ramaphosa.
It was developing technical and artisan skills while producing a new cohort of young scientists. “Scientists are not born. They are made. They are the products of a society that values knowledge, promotes learning and rewards innovation. They are products of a society that reads, of schools that work and parents [who] are engaged in the intellectual development of their children.
“We need universities that have the academic capacity and financial resources to conduct ground-breaking research, companies that are prepared to dedicate resources to research and development, understanding that sustained profitability depends on innovative products and evolving ways of working, schools that have libraries, and schools that have capable and enthusiastic teachers of maths, science and language,” he said.
National Development Plan
Science and technology could do much in the fight against poverty, unemployment and inequality, he said, adding that the National Development Plan (NDP) highlighted the vital role played by science, technology and innovation in national development and equitable growth.
“Throughout human history, technological progress has fuelled economic and social development. From agriculture to commerce, from health care to communications, from manufacturing to education, technology has transformed the human experience.”
While the first phase of the SKA would be situated in South Africa and Australia, 11 countries were participating as members of the SKA Organisation. “Around 100 organisations from about 20 countries have been participating in the design and development of the SKA. It is particularly significant that eight other African countries will be involved in hosting the second phase of the project. This promises to establish Africa as a hub for expanding scientific inquiry.”
He said the SKA would be a revolutionary new radio telescope, a highly flexible instrument designed to address fundamental questions in astrophysics, fundamental physics, cosmology, particle astrophysics and astrobiology.
“Through the SKA we will be able to probe the cosmic Dark Ages and previously unexplored parts of the distant universe. We will use it to search for planets and black holes, and examine galaxy evolution, cosmology and dark energy, in search of answers to fundamental questions about our origins and how the universe works.”
The government commended, encouraged and supported partnerships between the SKA Project Office and the private sector that were transforming the lives of people in the Northern Cape.
“We are witnesses to human capital development through a bursary programme for learners in the surrounding areas of Williston, Brandvlei, Van Wyksvlei and Carnarvon,” Ramaphosa said, encouraging people to work together to expand knowledge and apply what was discovered to improve the condition of all life on Earth.
“Let us work together to explore the history of our universe and, in doing so, secure our common future.”