IOL / 16 JULY 2018 - 10:00 / NICOLA DANIELS
South Africa was officially ordained as a serious role-player in the field of science and technology at the weekend as the Deputy President David Mabuza launched MeerKAT.
A 64 dish-array telescope, it has to date produced the clearest picture of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy.
The South African MeerKAT radio telescope is a 64 dish array that will study galaxies across the history of the universe. It is the precursor to the Square Kilometre Array telescope, a larger project which will have a total collecting area of approximately one square kilometre. Picture: Nicola Daniels
MeerKAT is a South African project, a precursor to the larger international Square Kilometre Array (SKA). It consists of 64 antennas (or dishes), each 13.5 metres in diameter, located on baselines (distances between antenna pairs) of up to 8km.
Science and Technology acting chief director for astronomy Takalani Nemaugani said MeerKAT’s cost to completion was about R3.2billion spent over the last 15 years.
As SKA is being built by an international consortium, including Canada, China, India, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK, and will be co-hosted in Africa and Australia - ministers from these countries were also present at the inaugural event in the Northern Cape.
Minister of Science and Technology Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane was joined by several former science and technology ministers, including Ben Ngubane, Mosibudi Mangena, Derek Hanekom and Naledi Pandor.
Delivering the keynote address, Mabuza said the completion of MeerKAT was a milestone for Africa.
“The National Development Plan Vision 2030, which is our blueprint for positioning South Africa on a greater development path, states that ‘science, technology and innovation must play an increasing role in skills development, job creation and economic growth’,” he said.
Mabuza said government had developed a public-funded science, technology and innovation plan of action over the next 12-18 months.
In her speech, Kubayi-Ngubane tied in the significance of the launch with the centenary year of struggle icons Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu.
“These two heroes belonged to a generation of heroes that fought hard to make it possible for us to be here today to wonder about the universe and its origin,” she said.
Pandor also expressed great pride in the country’s achievement: “I am excited at what we’ve come to produce but we’ve got to produce more mathematicians, more engineers, more technicians. I am thrilled that as part of learning from this project, we became aware that technicians were absolutely necessary.
"We took 300-plus young people from the local communities and they have been training through the TVET college system so they’ll be the ones who provide the maintenance support. This is the kind of benefit a country wants to see from a science project of this immensity.”
After a decade in design and construction, this project has now begun science operations.
Chief scientist Fernando Camilo said it turned out twice as good as originally planned: “MeerKAT is a testament to the high quality work of South African engineers.
“When you build infrastructure of this complexity, you are lucky if you reach the design goals. It is very hard work, this is research. You don’t go out and buy any of this in a shop, you have to make it yourself.
‘‘One of the MeerKAT projects will study the galaxy for transient phenomena like exploding stars.
Another project, called Laduma, aims to look at one patch of sky for thousands of hours over several years, making the deepest census investigation of hydrogen in galaxies going all the way back, through about two thirds of the history of the universe, that is unique it has never been done,” Camilo said.
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