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SKA, aviation sector looking at flight impacts

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"The current narrative regarding “diversion of flights”, and “dead zones”, was “an unfortunate narrative”

Phase 1 of the Square Kilometre Array is set to proceed, with its environmental licence granted. Photo: Armand Hough / African News Agency (ANA)

THE SQUARE Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, of which the South African component will be constructed in the Northern Cape, will not necessarily cause longer, more expensive flights for local air travellers.

The SKA is an international project to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with plans to eventually have over a square kilometre of collecting area in the Northern Cape.

Scientific studies found that the Northern Cape’s Carnarvon region was one of the best places in the world for radio astronomy because it offers good atmospheric conditions, radio quietness, geotechnical stability, good security and good infrastructure.

The core site (or SKA Virtual Centre) lies about 90km north of Carnarvon, where 64 MeerKAT receptors, part of Phase One of the SKA, are currently being built.

Astronomy Advantage Areas (AAA) that have been declared to date include the Northern Cape Province, excluding Sol Plaatje Municipality, the Karoo Core AAA (consisting of 13 406 hectares of land owned by the National Research Foundation, 90km north of Carnarvon) and the Karoo Central AAAs, as published in the Government Gazette.

Dr Adrian Tiplady, head of strategy and business processes at the SKA, yesterday refuted reports that the regulations of the Karoo Central Astronomy Advantage Area Act would necessitate the re-routing of flights, specifically between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and would potentially lead to longer, and more expensive flights. This came after the Department of Science and Technology introduced a number of regulations to prevent outside interference from impacting on SKA’s activities.

The regulations, as published in December 2017, came into force in December 2018, and establishes a system of assessments and permitting of users of the radio frequency spectrum within the declared Karoo Central AAA.

“The intention is to establish and manage an optimised radio frequency environment that is both suitable for hosting of radio astronomy facilities, such as the SKA, as well as enabling the use of the radio frequency spectrum for essential telecommunication services. During the course of engagements with various stakeholders, whilst developing and conducting the public participation processes for the regulations, it was agreed that aviation would be excluded from the regulations due to a variety of factors. The regulations are quite explicit on this matter and prescribe that they are not applicable to radio communication services utilised by the aviation industry (aeronautical radio communication services),” Tiplady said yesterday.

He added that in a separate process, the SKA, together with the Department of Science and Technology, had been engaging with the various aviation stakeholders – at both a governmental and technical level – to quantify the potential impact aviation activity may have on the SKA telescope, and thereafter to jointly develop and agree to mitigation measures that would reduce this impact as far as practically possible.

“From the perspective of the SKA, we believe that we currently have a very good and fruitful relationship with our colleagues in the aviation sector, and at this stage we are still busy understanding the impact by doing a variety of tests and simulations. We have not yet started on the development of possible mitigation measures (since these are very dependent on the degree of mitigation required), but will do so jointly with the aviation sector,” Tiplady stated.

He added that the current narrative regarding “diversion of flights”, and “dead zones”, was “an unfortunate narrative”.

“We are not yet at a stage where we are requiring diversion to take place. We are currently assessing the impact of the nearest air routes to the SKA site, being the major JHB-CPT air route (of which only a limited number may pose a risk and require further assessment).

“Whilst I cannot claim to be an aviation expert, various mitigation measures can be explored such as reduced transmission power levels in the vicinity of the SKA, or special rules areas, or taking advantage of more modern equipment, or perhaps even slight deviations, none of which, I believe, would result in major time or cost increases. By no means are we envisaging major detours via Port Elizabeth, for example,” Tiplady concluded.

– Norma Wildenboer