Africa is a contender, along with Australia and New Zealand, in a project to build a really huge telescope – the Square Kilometer Array. Although the decision on where to build it won’t be known until late March or early April at the earliest, the project is already in full swing. Made up of 3,000 radio-frequency receivers, it will cover a collective area of 1 square kilometer, hence its name (see artist’s rendering of SKA dishes below, courtesy SKA website). The receivers will range from large dishes to small fish-eye antennas, all aimed at a different radio frequency in the sky.

Only 20% of the antennas would be located in this square kilometer, 50% would be located within 5 kilometers and some would be located as far away as 3,000 kilometers – giving the scientists who will eventually work on the project access to the entire universe, and giving the project access to an entire continent, and maybe more. If it is built in Australia, the SKA could stretch all the way to New Zealand. If built in southern Africa, it could stretch to the Indian Ocean islands.
Astronomers and engineers from more than 70 institutes in 20 countries are designing it. It will be 50 times more sensitive, and will survey the sky 10,000 times faster, than any other telescope. And they are looking to study some pretty cool things:

  • How do galaxies evolve and what is dark energy? (See artist’s rendering of dark energy below, courtesy SKA website.)
  • Are we alone? It will be able to detect very weak extraterrestrial signals and will search for complex molecules, the building blocks of life, in space.
  • How were the first black holes and stars formed?
  • What generates the giant magnetic fields in space?
  • Was Einstein right? It will investigate the nature of gravity and challenge the theory of general relativity; it will explore the unknown and, if history is any guide, it will make many more discoveries than we can imagine today.

The 20 participating countries share the nearly $2 billion cost, as well as its operating costs of $130 to $200 million per year. That is a lot of money, especially for countries in southern Africa where the development possibilities attached to such a huge project are endless: millions for power, communications and data processing alone. And let’s not forget all of the side businesses and other business spin-offs that would come from the work.
Dark Energy
The impact on Africa would be very far-reaching and a lot more than anywhere else in the world,” said Bernie Fanaroff, Project Director, South Africa, in a recent Time magazine article on “Africa’s Eye in the Sky”. “It would be good for getting business into Africa, and we would be creating people with skills and expertise to solve problems not just in astronomy, but energy, water, food security, disease and transport.”
As a matter of fact, some smaller dishes that will be used for the project are already in the pipeline or active in Africa, and it is local populations, not foreigners, who are reaping the benefits. These include general investments in the regions where they are being built, and full-fledged programs aimed at training local populations – scientists, engineers, physicists, especially women and blacks – creating world-class astronomy teams. Thus this program isn’t only about reaching out into the cosmos, but about the far-reaching impacts it can have right here on planet Earth.
First published as an S3 communiqué on Scientifically Yours at