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  • Africa Analysis: A stellar win for Africa

Shared hosting of the Square Kilometre Array project with Australasia will not diminish the benefits for Africa, says Linda Nordling.

The news that South Africa will share the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) with Australasia seemed like an anti-climax to the country's long and fierce fight to host this giant radio telescope.

Observers on the social media platform Twitter were palpably disappointed by the outcome. But the split is good news for science, and better news for Africa. It maximizes returns on the considerable investment both host regions have already made in radio astronomy.

And Africa could still get all the social and economic benefits SKA project leaders promised in order to drum up political support during the extended bidding phase.

Sensible science

If and when it is built, the SKA will be the world's most powerful radio telescope. It will consist of thousands of satellite dishes — the combined collecting area of which will be one square kilometer — and will be used to peer back to the radiation emitted soon after the big bang.

The project has been split along scientific lines. The SKA will survey a huge range of radio frequencies — too large to be covered by a single type of instrument.

Australia and New Zealand get the low-frequency array that will scan the entire sky at once without moving. Africa gets the middle-frequency receptors, which will peer deeply into narrow parts of sky. It is not an even split — indeed, most of the dishes will be built in Africa.

This means that both regions will benefit from the precursor instruments for SKA that they are building already. South Africa's MeerKAT array has cost the country US$162 million (1.4 billion rand) to date. The planned Australian SKA Pathfinder, worth US$97 million (AU$100 million), will also become part of the SKA.

But what about the social and economic benefits cited to sell the project to African governments: improved ICT infrastructure, a boost for high-tech industry and an influx of top-grade international scientists to the region?

A good split

If Africa only gets part of the project, will it only get some of the benefits? The answer is an emphatic no. The way the project has been split ensures that the benefits remain more or less intact.

Take, for instance, the ICT infrastructure. High-powered computing networks will need to be built both in southern Africa and in Australasia, bringing big opportunities to develop both engineering and technological resources.

And South Africa's science and astronomy communities are over the moon. Both the University of Cape Town and the University of Stellenbosch have welcomed the split hosting decision, saying it opens the door for more training and research.

"The implications for astronomy in the region are huge, and the announcement should further attract South Africa's top young minds to science and engineering, in particular physics, astronomy and electronic engineering," says David Davidson, professor in the University of Stellenbosch's department of electrical and electronic engineering.

The roads, power lines and other physical infrastructure that need to be built in the central SKA site in South Africa will also create job opportunities, he added.

All African partners still in it

The wider African participation in the project also remains intact under the split hosting solution.

The mid-frequency array assigned to Africa is the one that was planned to spiral up through the eight African partner countries: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. All of these plans will still go ahead.

"The split has no effect whatsoever on the African involvement," says Justin Jonas, associate director of science and engineering in the South African SKA bid.

Moreover, the shared solution will provide ample opportunities for up and coming African astronomers to become scientific leaders on the project as it develops over the coming decades.

Paying for success

Indeed, it is hard to see any drawback for Africa of the shared solution, apart from the increase in costs. For instance, costly data handling equipment will now have to be built in two locations, not just one.

However, the added cost could be offset by just one or two more countries joining the SKA project says Jonas. This is something he sees as more likely with the "inclusive" approach to hosting, spanning two continents, chosen by the SKA board.

The SKA team's approach to spiraling costs may seem flippant in the current financial climate. And there will doubtless be days ahead when the cost of this project will come under intense scrutiny, both from the hosting countries and from the participating nations that have said they will help foot the US$1.9 billion (€1.5 billion) bill.

But that is for the future. Today we celebrate. Well done, Africa!

Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.

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