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UK science minister to visit SKA project in Karoo, South Africa

10 September 2013, Cape Town, South Africa –   Tomorrow, 11 September 2013, the UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, The Right Honourable David Willetts, will be touching down on South Africa’s new, all-weather, landing strip in the Karoo, where South Africa is building the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope, a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).


MeerKAT infrastructure under progress at SKA SA site. Credit: SKA South Africa

The MeerKAT, with a further 190 antennas to be built on the same site, will make up the first phase of the mid-frequency component of the SKA. The second phase of the SKA will see further mid frequency antennas constructed across South Africa and in eight African SKA partner countries. Complementary components of the SKA will be located in Australia, the co-host country of what will be the world’s largest radio telescope.

Mr Willetts, accompanied by senior government officials from the UK and SA, and SKA South Africa Project staff, will be on the first aircraft to touch down on the new landing strip.

The UK is a major player in the global SKA project, and is host to the head office of the SKA Organisation, located at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester. “It is a pleasure to see our South African SKA colleagues hosting Minister Willetts at one of the telescope sites, a few months after the Minister inaugurated the SKA Headquarters in the UK”, said Professor Philip Diamond, Director-General of the SKA Organisation. “This shows constant support and commitment from the UK government for the global SKA project and this is something we appreciate and value immensely.”

South Africa and the UK are already collaborating extensively in the field of radio astronomy, with 25 research organisations and 88 scientists from the UK directly involved in the large survey teams that will use the MeerKAT telescope for research during its first five years of operation. This includes 16 scientists from Oxford University and 11 from Manchester University. Mr Willetts’ visit will further strengthen the science collaboration between South Africa and the UK.

Mr Willetts says “The SKA is an extremely exciting project. I am delighted that the UK’s world-leading astronomers are working closely with their South African colleagues at this important site. From how the first stars and galaxies formed to the nature of gravity, their work will vastly increase our understanding of the universe. SKA is one of the UK’s highest priority astronomy projects, and we are planning to invest £19 million (305 million SA Rand) in the design phase of the project. I look forward to the UK and South African scientific communities working closely together as they harness Big Data, one of the eight great technologies of the future, to explore some of the most fundamental problems in astronomy.”

MeerKAT foundation

Pouring of first MeerKAT dish foundation. Credit: SKA South Africa



During his visit to South Africa’s SKA site, Mr Willetts will have the opportunity to view the significant progress taking place on the first large-scale global research infrastructure project ever to be co-hosted in Africa. Mr Willets will see the developments of the infrastructure being installed for the MeerKAT, including the KAT-7 pathfinder telescope and the roads, specialised buildings and the sheds where the antennas for MeerKAT will be manufactured and integrated. He will also be able to observe the pouring of concrete for the foundations of the 64 MeerKAT antennas.


“We are pleased to have Minister Willetts in the country this week for the SA-UK Bilateral Forum. As Ministers responsible for the promotion of research and science in our respective countries we will use the opportunity to further reflect and explore areas of collaboration. The UK is indeed a key strategic partner of ours, with whom we have a number of successful human capital development programmes. While in the country, Minister Willetts will get to visit the SKA site and I am positive that he will be very impressed with progress made to date” says Derek Hanekom, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology.


New all-weather landing strip at SKA SA site. Credit SKA South Africa

“We are delighted that Minister Willetts’ visit coincides with the maiden landing on our all-weather landing strip, providing the opportunity for us to demonstrate the delivery of infrastructure for MeerKAT and the SKA,” says Professor Justin Jonas, Associate Director for Science and Engineering at SKA South Africa. 

“The new landing strip will make it easier, quicker and safer for our engineers and scientists who frequently visit the remote radio astronomy site in the Karoo,” Jonas adds. “The site is located about 700 km from Cape Town, where our science, engineering and commissioning teams are based, and about 1 000 km from Johannesburg, where our infrastructure engineering team is based.” The landing strip will also be required for the international SKA Organisation to deploy the SKA radio telescope, and its associated infrastructure.


Landing strip facts and figures

  • The new all-weather landing strip is 1 300 m long and 18 m wide. At present it can accommodate aircraft seating up to 13 passengers (e.g. Pilatus PC-12, Cessna and Beech King Air).
  • The strip includes an apron to accommodate up to two aircraft at any given time.
  • The position of the landing strip was carefully chosen to avoid interference with the configuration and operations of the MeerKAT, and in the future, the SKA, and to fit in with the local topography and wind conditions.
  • The landing strip will be used during the construction of MeerKAT (up to 2016), and for the SKA (from 2017 onwards). Once these telescopes are operational, the landing strip will be used for technical maintenance crews to get to the site.
  • The landing strip has been registered as a voluntary un-manned landing strip with the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA). Should the need arise to land larger aircraft, the voluntary registration with the SACAA will be upgraded to a fully licensed landing strip.
  • Brink & Heath Civils (Pty) Ltd was awarded the contract for the construction of the roads, civil works, electrical and fibre ducting reticulation and the all-weather landing strip on site.

About the SKA

The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10 000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes. The SKA will be built in Africa and in Australia. Thousands of receptors will extend to distances of 3 000 km from the central regions. The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the big bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth. The SKA Organisation, with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, UK, was established in December 2011 as a not-for-profit company in order to formalise relationships between the international partners and centralise the leadership of the project.

Members of the SKA Organisation as of May 2013:

  • Australia: Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
  • Canada: National Research Council
  • China: Ministry of Science and Technology
  • Germany: Federal Ministry of Education and Research
  • Italy: National Institute for Astrophysics
  • Netherlands: Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research
  • New Zealand: Ministry of Economic Development
  • Republic of South Africa: National Research Foundation
  • Sweden: Onsala Space Observatory
  • United Kingdom: Science and Technology Facilities Council

Associate member:

  • India: National Centre for Radio Astrophysics


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