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SKA decision sees UWC looking to the heavens

Author: SARCHI Chair (AstroPhysics)

"The awarding of the major part of the SKA project to the African bid  heralds a new era for African science and technology."

The awarding of the major part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project to the African bid  on 25 May 2012 heralds a new era for African science and technology, says the University of the Western Cape (UWC) Professor Ramesh Bharuthram Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and Head of the Astronomy Desk at the Department of Science and Technology.
After months of competition between South Africa and fellow bidder Australia, this decision is a crucial step in twenty-first century astronomy. When completed, the SKA will be the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope, with 50 times the sensitivity and 10 000 times the survey speed of the best current telescopes. It will provide the highest resolution images in astronomy, which will be used to test cosmic magnetism, provide extreme tests of general relativity, and investigate fundamental physics and cosmology.
Bharuthram puts it this way: “The SKA is the most ambitious Radio telescope ever designed to help address some of the big questions in astronomy and astrophysics:  How did the Universe originate? How did it evolve and what is its destiny? How do galaxies form and evolve? How do stars form and evolve? How do planets form and evolve? Is there life anywhere else in the Universe?”
Astronomers at UWC are heavily involved in the SKA project. Professor Roy Maartens holds one of five SKA/ DST Research Chairs (his is the Chair in Astrophysics). Professor Matt Jarvis from the UK is a SKA Visiting Professor at UWC and an internationally renowned radio astronomer. There are six SKA research fellows at UWC, as well as MSc and PhD students funded by the SKA. And, in fact, the astronomy group at UWC was started in 2008 when the SKA project funded a post for Professor Catherine Cress, who has conducted important work on galaxy evolution and cosmology.
The majority of SKA dishes - including all the dishes and the mid-frequency aperture arrays - in Phase 1 will be built in South Africa, and will combine with the existing MeerKAT project. Further SKA dishes (mainly low frequency aperture array antennas) will be built in Australia and added to the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) array. Themagnitude of the project is such that while the majority of the African telescopes will be located in the Northern Cape near Carnarvon, others will be located in our eight partner countries: Namibia, Botswana,
Mozambique, Mauritius, Madagascar, Zambia, Kenya and Ghana.
Together with the existing Southern African Largest Telescope (SALT) for Optical astronomy in Sutherland and the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) for Gamma Ray astronomy located in Namibia, the SKA will make sub-Saharan Africa the most comprehensive international site for astronomy studies across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.
UWC leads the way in the SKA
UWC astronomers have a strong presence in the Large Survey Projects on South Africa's MeerKAT array, which will become part of SKA Phase I. Matt Jarvis supervises students and research fellows on his regular visits to Cape Town, and Roy Maartens and his team of researchers are developing the capacity in South Africa to use the SKA as a deep probe of the Universe, and especially of dark energy. Dark energy is responsible for driving the galaxies apart from each other faster and faster, and is one of the biggest mysteries in our current picture of the Universe. The SKA will provide the biggest ever map of the Universe, reaching deep into space and far back in time. This map will contain a wealth of information that can be 'mined' with the sophisticated methods being developed at UWC.
"UWC is not only developing new science for the SKA - it also has a strong commitment to training previously disadvantaged students in astronomy, helping to build up South Africa and Africa's capacity to host and use the SKA," says Maartens.
Bharuthram feels the same way. “Let us use this moment to motivate more of our youth into science and mathematics so as to produce future generations of African astronomers and astrophysicists,” he says.
For more information please contact
Professor Roy Maartens
021 9593464
082 680 0294


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