Remarks by the Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, at the South Africa-UK Partnership in Global Science Forum, South African High Commission, London, 13 March 2019

Programme Director;

High Commissioner Nomatemba Tambo;

Mr Tom Child, Deputy Director for Global Science and Innovation, UK;

Mr Alistair McPherson, Deputy Director-General, SKA Organisation;

Prof. Mark Thompson, Professor of Experimental Particle Physics, University of Cambridge;

Mr Ian Jones, CEO, Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd;

Distinguished guests;

Ladies and gentlemen:

I would like to thank Ambassador Tambo for insisting that we come back to London to participate in this important forum aimed at strengthening science cooperation between South Africa and the United Kingdom. It is a very exciting time for South Africa and Africa with regard to developments around science and technology.

Yesterday, in Rome, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project achieved a critical milestone, and one that should be celebrated. Seven countries, namely South Africa, Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom, signed a treaty officially establishing the SKA Observatory as a legal intergovernmental entity. This milestone is the culmination of four years of negotiations by government representatives and international lawyers, and kicks off the legislative process for the respective signatory countries.

The intergovernmental treaty, also known as the Rome Convention, will ensure strong governance for the SKA project, and makes the SKA Observatory only the second intergovernmental organisation dedicated to astronomy in the world, after the European Southern Observatory.

India and Sweden, who also took part in the multilateral negotiations to establish the SKA Observatory intergovernmental organisation, will now have one year to sign the treaty. Together, these nine countries will form the founding members of the new organisation.

The signing ceremony came hot on the heels of the successful completion of all essential infrastructure designs required for the first phase of the project to build the SKA, the world’s most powerful radio telescope. For the last five years, two engineering consortia have been hard at work at their sites in Murchison, Western Australia and the Northern Cape, South Africa respectively, designing all the essential infrastructure required for construction of phase one of the SKA project. The South African consortium was led by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, which designed, built and operates the 64-antenna SKA precursor telescope, the MeerKAT. In June and July 2018, both teams had successful critical design reviews, and made final refinements to their designs. Subsequently, their proposed designs demonstrated compliance with SKA “Level 1” requirements.

Following the successful review of the key infrastructure components of the SKA � which is considered a major engineering victory � the project will now move on to the bridging phase. This will involve bringing together all the individual designs of elements of the SKA and integrating them on a system level. A system critical design review will be conducted in December 2019, after which the project will enter the procurement phase, followed by construction once the establishment of the SKAO as an intergovernmental organisation has been concluded.

The successful completion of the 64-antenna MeerKAT telescope in the Northern Cape was a tremendous achievement and key to the development of phase one of the international SKA project.

The awarding of the right to host the SKA telescope in Africa afforded South Africa the opportunity to construct the MeerKAT, the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere to date. The design and construction of the MeerKAT and the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) has enabled South Africa to develop capabilities in the design and construction of world-class telescopes, cost-effective supercomputing systems, and multidisciplinary systems engineering protocols for large infrastructure and technology projects, and has seen the development of a geographical advantage area into a research investment hub supported by the advanced legislation and technical skills needed to preserve it.

The development of these capabilities confirmed South Africa’s ability to host global infrastructure projects, and paved the way for South Africa to be awarded the hosting of the Hydrogen Epoch Reionization Array (HERA) telescope at the SKA site in Carnarvon. HERA is a radio telescope designed to detect, for the first time, the distinctive radio signals from the very first stars and galaxies that formed early in the life of the universe.

This means that the SKA project has helped South Africa to attract foreign direct investment in the area of science research. HERA will consist of 350 dishes located on the SKA site, and is currently being constructed by people from the local Carnarvon community. This is a US$15 million project funded by the National Science Foundation in the USA and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, helping us to develop skills, alleviate poverty, fight unemployment, and position South Africa as a global centre for astronomy research

Ladies and gentlemen, we are also very pleased that the African partner countries in the SKA project have been making commendable progress through the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) project. In October last year we hosted the 5th SKA/AVN ministerial meeting, at which we noted the significant progress that has been made so far, and committed to work together to mobilise funding to give further impetus to the development of the AVN.

Through the AVN project, Ghana became the first of the eight African SKA partner countries to complete the conversion of a redundant communications antenna into a functioning radio telescope. This telescope was successfully launched by the President of Ghana in Kuntunse, Accra on 24 August 2017. The Kuntunse Radio Telescope has successfully carried out its First Light observations, which is a very significant milestone for the astronomy programme in Ghana, and a highlight of the multi-country cooperation between South Africa and Ghana. With the support of its European partners, the AVN project is strengthening Africa’s leading role in the international SKA project.

The AVN programme has also enabled us to achieve the following:

We have rolled out two-dish interferometers at universities in Botswana and Mozambique as pilots for teaching and training purposes.

We have rolled out 10-20 computers loaded with software for use in radio astronomy as pilots in Botswana and Mozambique.

We have provided assistance to university astronomy programmes in partner countries through workshops and curriculum support.

Lastly, we have initiated an AVN Human Capacity Development Programme to supplement the SKA Human Capacity Development Programme and increase the number of recipients and training opportunities from the SKA/AVN partner countries. So far, 136 recipients, mainly from African SKA partner countries, have benefited from this initiative, many returning to initiate radio astronomy programmes at their home universities.

With the availability of more funds, the conversion of communications antenna into functioning radio telescopes, along with other AVN initiatives, can be replicated in all the partner countries.

Furthermore, the completion of the MeerKAT, to be followed by the SKA, signals the dawn of the era of big data in Africa. This means that as a continent we have a responsibility to develop the skills that will be needed to analyse the vast amounts of data that will be generated by these projects. For us to derive full economic and scientific value from these projects, data analytics capability will be an absolute necessity.

It is for this reason that we are pleased about the cooperation with the United Kingdom on the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) initiative. We are very pleased with the progress that has been made so far in this programme. It is crucial for the next generation of young researchers to develop big data analytics capabilities. The two workshops that were held last year went a long way towards achieving this goal.

The forthcoming engagement session with our historically disadvantaged institutions will be of great assistance in ensuring that big data analytics capabilities are evenly distributed. These initiatives will ensure that Africa becomes an active participant in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The SKA project is a clear demonstration of what can be achieved when countries come together and cooperate for the common good of humanity. Global scientific development for the benefit of humanity as a whole can only be achieved through global science cooperation. Let us continue to work together on this great endeavour that will get us closer to understanding the origin of the universe.

I thank you.

Source: Department: Science and Technology (DST)