SKA takes another step forward

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This week saw another important step towards the building of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope in the southern hemisphere, with Ghana and South Africa completing what they termed “first light” science observations. This was achieved through the successful conversion of a communications antenna from a redundant telecoms instrument in Ghana into a functioning Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) radio telescope.

ghana 2017a 579x1030According to the two governments, Ghana is the first partner country of the VLBI Network to complete the conversion of a communications antenna into a functioning radio telescope. The 32-metre long converted telecommunications antenna will be integrated into the African VLBI Network in preparation for the second phase of construction for the SKA across the continent.

See here: The 32-metre converted Ghana radio telescope in Kutunse, Accra.

Ghana collaborated with SKA South Africa and the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomical Observatory (HartRAO) group to harness the radio astronomy potential of the satellite antenna at Kutunse. A large part of the conversion was funded by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO). The tool used was the African Renaissance Fund, which is aimed at strengthening co-operation between South Africa and other African countries, supporting the development of skills and building institutional capacity.

“A vital part of the effort towards building SKA on the African continent over the next decade is to develop the skills, regulations and institutional capacity needed in SKA partner countries to optimise African participation in the SKA. It will bring new science opportunities to Africa on a relatively short time scale and develop radio astronomy science communities in SKA partner countries,” Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology, said in a statement.

Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia make up the nine African partner countries invested in the SKA AVN, with many of them already collaborating. A Ministerial Forum comprising Ministers from the partner countries convenes on an annual basis to provide strategic and political leadership on the co-operation with the SKA and AVN projects, and on other relevant radio astronomy programmes and initiatives.

The Ghanaian scientists that will be operating the telescope have been trained in South Africa, and the UK government is providing financial support to further the SKA project. The Royal Society has awarded funding in collaboration with Leeds University to train two PhDs and 60 young aspiring scientists in the field of astrophysics, and a joint UK-South Africa Newton Fund intervention (the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA)) has been initiated in other partner countries to grow high technology skills that could lead to broader economic development in Africa.

While the SKA is expected to provide insights about the origin of the universe, perhaps its greater value will lie in the scientific growth and collaboration among the African partner countries. For the first time in History, Africa is not merely riding on the coattails of Western science, but forging its own scientific advancement; and for the first time, diverse African countries are working together to do so.

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