Will Africa Be Home to the World’s Largest Radio Telescope?

Square Kilometre Array
An artist’s rendering of the SKA antennas (SKA Project Development Office and Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

A decision is expected today on whether the world’s biggest telescope will be based in South Africa. If it’s good news then it will be another reason to celebrate as today is also Africa Day!

The following article on whether the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be established Africa originally appeared in Foreign Policy Journal last week and was written by John Glassey, co-founder and MD of AfricanBrains.

In the 1990s, it was the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In the 2000s, it was the economic tigers of Asia. Will this be the decade that Africa finally breaks through with unprecedented transformative growth?

While optimism always requires caution, there are many strong signs that a region-wide boom could be underway.  Thanks to increasing political stability in many parts of Africa, foreign investment has increased, allowing for a surge in growth.  According to a World Bank report released on April 18, more than one third of economies in the region have grown by at least 6% in the past year, with countries such as Ghana, Mozambique, and Nigeria, as well as Rwanda and Ethiopia, all posting growth rates of at least 7% in 2011.

In order to take advantage of this period of growth, African countries are increasingly focusing on technology, research, and education to help them close the competitive gap between Africa and other players in the global economy.

The goal is to achieve a transition to knowledge-based economy, where greater employment opportunities can be created around value-added exports and services.  Whereas many African economies subsist on the export of raw materials (oil, iron ore, copper, etc.), many countries are pursuing aggressive economic diversification strategies with foreign partners that would allow for a greater manufacturing, industrialization and technological capacity so a country like Nigeria could refine its own oil rather than sending it abroad, or a mining economy like Zambia could begin to process its own copper instead of re-importing the finished goods from China.

Technology is now seen as the most important factor in economic diversification, allowing these rising African economies to find some relief from the price swings of a single commodity export, which can have a devastating impact on balance of payments.

Nevertheless, there are huge challenges to the development of an African information and communications technology (ICT) sector.  For one, connectivity is very low.  There is not one sub-sea fiber optic cable between the United States and Africa, cutting the continent off from the largest data storage and servers on the planet.  While there are sub-sea cables to Europe, the average price per gigabyte for an Internet service provider in Botswana can be 100 times more expensive than for someone in London.  Secondly, there is no major data storage site in all of Africa, while academic centers of research must make do with insufficient budgets.

But there is one important initiative underway that could be a revolutionary boom for investment in African science and technology:  the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project.

The $2 billion SKA project represents one of the biggest and most impressive research installments in the world, a project on par with the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (CERN) outside of Geneva, Switzerland.  The SKA will consist of more than 3,000 satellite dishes spread across a vast area of land that will monitor and create images of radio waves is distant galaxies.  The project will allow scientists to see more than ten times further away than the most powerful radio telescopes currently available, addressing some of the more fundamental questions in contemporary physics and astronomy; including the nature of the first stars in the Universe, the cosmic history of the Universe, the nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, theories of gravity and black holes and the origin of cosmic magnetism.

South Africa, which alone makes up for one-third of the sub-Saharan economy, is joining forces with several other African governments to host the SKA, committing investments of several hundred million dollars.

Needless to say, the SKA would give a historic boost to innovation in Africa, paving the way forward for new investments in the ICT sector, opportunities for academic institutions to participate in cutting edge research, while contributing to the development of science and technologies in the region.

For example, hosting the SKA could transform African economies through its sheer computing power.  According to the technology blog POPSCI, “Take the current global daily Internet traffic and multiply it by two, and you start to approach the stupendous scales of data the Square Kilometre Array will churn out daily — about an exabyte per day. This vastly outpaces the state of the art in computing, notes Ton Engbersen of IBM Research in Zurich. ‘The area you would need for PCs is larger than the SKA,’ he said.”

There are also major education benefits to Africa if they were to win the bid.  The South African government has already set aside investments of more than $34 million to build a new university in the Northern Cape, saying it would not only improve the quality of education in the province, but would also play a role in job creation, as African students would have access to training opportunities at a world-class scientific research site, which can lead to recruiting for cutting edge science careers across the world.

“If South Africa is chosen to host the SKA, we hope the project’s two billion-euro price tag would spark a new sense of scientific achievement across the whole of Africa,” said South Africa’s Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor.  According to the Minister, the SKA will be 50-100 times more powerful than any current radio telescope, and will be used to collect radio waves from space and explore the universe.  The benefits of hosting the project would be immediate for the Karoo town of Carnarvon (in the Northern Cape – the proposed 3,000 square kilometer site for SKA), placing the town on the global map and resulting in infrastructure development for the province, attracting billions into Africa from both foreign investors sponsoring the SKA project and the South African government.

The biggest multiplier effect of winning the SKA however would be education.  To date, the project has supported 292 post-doctoral fellows, postgraduate, and undergraduate students studying science or engineering.  Almost 400 students from South Africa have been awarded scholarships funded by the SKA Organization to earn PhD, MSc, and undergraduate degrees, and more than 70 students from neighboring countries have been granted fellowships by the same organization.  Just imagine how many more students could participate if South Africa is chosen for the project.

South Africa’s bid to host the SKA faces stiff competition from a joint Australia-New Zealand offer, and unfortunately, it is possible that the project would be split in half or taken away entirely.  On April 4th, the SKA Organization held a two-day meeting in The Netherlands, concluding with a press statement that they want to take an “inclusive approach” to the location of the project.  A working group evaluating the bids is expected to deliver a report in mid-May for consideration.

While the effort to host the SKA is being led by South Africa, the bid features an impressive level of multilateral cooperation among many African partners.  If they are selected for the project, nine different African countries are scheduled to commit preliminary funds amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars to get the project off the ground, while outlying telescope stations would be constructed throughout Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya, Madagascar and Mauritius.  Such a level of economic and technological cooperation between African nations is unprecedented, and should be applauded.

A frequent question concerning the SKA project is who will foot the bill?  The project would be a joint venture between the governments of South Africa and other participating nations, but the majority of costs would come from the privately funded SKA Organization.  In an effort to win the bid, the South African government has already granted VAT exemption to the project, while to make the site more attractive, the government has promised big investments in fiber optics and infrastructure.

These kinds of inter-Ministerial relationships between these countries, as well as their relations with the world’s leading ICT providers, is what our organization focuses on through networking and events.  At the upcoming Innovation Africa Conference to be held October 5-7, 2012, in Cape Town, Minister Pandor will be one of many prestigious keynote speakers, where we will focus on the urgent questions facing the development of science and technology in the region.

In a fiercely competitive global economy, African nations are better suited to regional cooperation.  Stronger multilateral relationships, access to finance and the latest technology, and empowerment of students and entrepreneurs are the keys to unlock transformative development. The traditionally slow way of ‘getting things done’ in the African bureaucratic context is falling by the wayside, as a bold new future awaits with ambitious players finally getting the chance to compete.

The only question is whether you’re ready to play a part in it.