by Sarah Wild, February 08 2013, 05:56
SOUTH Africans do not realise the skills flowing into the country because of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), says Johan Tucker, the MD of satellite company Stratosat Datacom.
The SKA — made up of more than 3,000 antennas — will be the largest radio telescope in the world, and will be so sensitive that it will be able to detect signals from the Big Bang.
Last year, it was announced that South Africa would share the R23bn leviathan telescope with Australia, with Africa hosting about 70% of the antennas. Local participation, skills development and content were key arguments used to gain support during South Africa’s bid to host the project.
Construction of South Africa’s precursor telescope, the 64-dish MeerKAT, is already under way with the first dish expected to erected later this year.
“South Africa has been very fortune with this whole project”, Mr Tucker says. “In this period of MeerKAT and SKA, the technology, information, know-how and skills that are flowing into South Africa are enormous.”
Stratosat, in a joint venture with US firm General Dynamics Satcom (GD Satcom), won the largest tender in the MeerKAT construction, a R632m tender bid for antenna positioners.
“Our core business is the satellite communications mar-ket,” Mr Tucker says, noting that radio telescope and commercial antenna technology “are similar and we are comfortable with the technology”.
When it was announced in August last year that Stratosat and GD Satcom had won the tender, a snubbed company cried foul, saying that “the project is going overseas”.
However, Stratosat director Alan Geldenhuys dismisses the allegation, saying “if you look at our company, we’ve been in operation here for the past 40 years, manufacturing and designing electronics and associated products.”
Mr Tucker says: “We (bid for the tender) in partnership with GD Satcom, the market leader in the supply of radio telescopes.”
There are provisions to ensure that South African manufacturing and industry benefit from South Africa’s radio astronomy ambitions. SKA SA said last year that the tender contract required 75% of the antenna positioners’ content be made in South Africa.
But the SKA is not the only radio astronomy project Strato-sat is involved in. It is also helping to convert old telecoms dishes in Africa into radio telescopes. This network, dubbed the African VLBI Network, is independent of South Africa’s bid for the SKA.
The VLBI network makes use of very long baseline interferometry — a radio astronomy technique that involves observing a single object through several telescopes simultaneously, so that all the telescopes act in effect as one big telescope.
Vodafone recently donated one of its old telecoms dishes to the Ghanaian government for radio astronomy.
Stratosat won the contract to “help SKA SA convert that antenna”, Mr Geldenhuys says.
“We have talked about how radio astronomy is boosting hi-tech and human capital development in South Africa. It can do the same in those countries,” says Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory MD Michael Gaylard.
“From the outset, we have been engaged with the National Research Foundation (which is overseeing the infrastructure spending) and SKA SA … (and) skills transfer was highly regarded. In fact, we have a skills transfer unit,” says Mr Geldenhuys.