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Bursaries in physics and electronics are on offer this month to postgraduate students across southern Africa from South Africa's Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope initiative — as part of a programme to strengthen their pool of expertise in these disciplines.

Ten bursaries will be awarded to undergraduate students and a further ten to school-leavers. Half of the school-leaver's bursaries have been set aside for applicants from South Africa's poverty-stricken Northern Cape.

The bursaries will provide manpower for SKA, should this largest-ever radio telescope come to South Africa, but are also part of an initiative to build skills in the region.  

The latest batch brings to 79 the total number of bursaries awarded since the South African SKA Human Capital Development Programme began in 2004.

Kim de Boer, manager of human capital development for SKA South Africa, said the bursary programme is aimed at encouraging Africa's brightest youngsters to follow careers in astronomy and engineering.

SKA South Africa is seeking out talented pupils in schools and introducing them to physics and mathematics as well as astronomy and engineering as career choices, de Boer told SciDev.Net.

"There is no shortage of good brains," she added.

Anita Loots, project leader of MeerKAT — a mid-frequency radio astronomy facility that 'hears' frequencies put out by astronomical objects in space, and possible forerunner to the SKA facility — said, ″There is enormous international support for our students because of their ability, enthusiasm and interest in SKA. These are young people who want to make a difference.″

The SKA project will involve building thousands of satellite-like dishes of 10–15 metres in diameter to monitor the sky for radio waves. It should open up new areas of science and mathematics and eventually provide insight into the origin of the Universe.

South Africa's Northern Cape province and Western Australia have been shortlisted as possible sites for the SKA radio telescope. A final announcement will be made in 2010 and construction work will start in 2014.