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NC telescope gets R800m boost

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R60m multipurpose science tourism visitor centre envisaged for Northern Cape town

The MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape. File picture

THE 64-dish MeerKAT, the precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), will be expanded by 20 dishes at a cost of R800 million, while a R60 million multipurpose science visitor centre is also on the cards for Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, home to the MeerKAT.

This was announced by Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande when he outlined his department’s spending priorities during a virtual sitting of the National Assembly on Friday.

Nzimande said that astronomy in South Africa remained important to its socio-economic landscape and that the heritage would further be strengthened through the MeerKAT, which has already been able to give the world a glimpse into the star-formation history of the universe.

“To extend its research area reach, the MeerKAT, situated in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, is to be expanded by 20 dishes at a cost of R800 million. The expansion will be a partnership between South Africa, Germany and China.

“The MeerKAT will further be integrated into SKA Phase 1 (2019-2024) with an additional 133 antennas in the Karoo up to 80km baseline from the core to make it a 197-dish array mid-frequency telescope.”

The minister said the MeerKAT continued to perform great science and has contributed to several discoveries.

The benefits of hosting these telescopes include a 75% local content component, direct investment of more than R300 million in the Northern Cape alone, the development of technical skills and big data capabilities, strengthening of university research programmes, opportunities for SMMEs and industry, community upliftment programmes, and investment in the youth.

“South Africa also participates in the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) project that aims to establish self-sufficient radio telescopes in Africa through the conversion of redundant telecommunications antennae into radio telescopes, ‘new-build’ telescopes or training facilities with training telescopes. 

“Other countries who participate in this initiative are Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia.”

The minister said, meanwhile, that the government was also collaborating with the Department of Tourism, the Northern Cape Department of Finance, Economic Development and Tourism, and the Kareeberg Municipality to establish the SKA Exploratorium in Carnarvon.

“This envisaged R60 million multipurpose science tourism visitor centre will create jobs and boost tourism in the area, and also serve as an outreach hub. A funding agreement is now being finalised for signature by the relevant parties in order to kick-start the project,” he said.