Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor was accompanied by several top government officials including Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel when she commissioned the first 16 antennas of the MeerKAT radio telescope.
CARNARVON – Progress at the MeerKAT radio telescope proves that amplified scientific research will transform the lives of millions of poor South Africans, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said on Saturday.
"I recall when I was being reminded that I must pay more attention to science in agriculture than to astronomy science. I refused to get off the path of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)," Pandor told a gathering at the SKA site north-west of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.
"We now see with the young people we have here that indeed science – astronomy – can change communities, can change lives, can create opportunity, and can build new human capital in areas never imagined. I’m convinced as a minister that nobody will dissuade me that big science projects matter to communities that are developing science capability."
Pandor on Saturday commissioned the first 16 operational antennas of the MeerKAT radio telescope, which is a precursor to the SKA.
First-year University of the Free State BSc student Janethon de Klerk, who hails from a town near Carnarvon, spoke at the gathering about how the full SKA bursary had changed her life.
"I am busy with my BSc degree in mathematics and physical science. I passed my first semester as a first- year student with two distinctions. I believe that now there are many opportunities for youngsters in our area in the field of science, mathematics, and technology," she said.
"I thank the SKA for giving me the opportunity to do something that I love. One day when I come back, I want to be the astronomer of the Karoo. I want to thank the SKA for giving me the opportunity to do something that has never been done in our area and even in our towns."
De Klerk is one of the first matriculants from Carnarvon High School to obtain a matric exemption.
Another SKA bursary beneficiary, Clemens Scheepers, said people from small towns have few options.
"Back in 2012, if somebody had told me about something like this I would have laughed it off as a joke, but now here I am. It was not always easy but thanks to the people at the SKA for helping us. You have to understand that we are in a very small community and we have very little opportunity to further ourselves through education," he said.
"The arrival of the SKA was greeted with great excitement but also a lot of scepticism because we are used to promises that are not always delivered on. Here I stand as an example that the SKA has delivered on the promise of helping Carnarvon as a community to grow."
Dr Fernando Camilo, SKA chief scientist, showed delegates the first light images from the MeerKAT radio telescope.
"This is very remarkable. We can learn many things about the universe and about how galaxies are formed and evolved by studying these kinds of images. This you will not get simply from an ordinary image from an ordinary telescope. You need a powerful radio telescope like the MeerKAT," he said.
"In the years to come, MeerKAT will address many of the key open scientific questions of our age by discovering and studying thousands and millions of galaxies in the far off universe. MeerKAT is doing extremely well, much better than than any of us could hope for with only the 16 dishes."
Local and and international media, scientists, senior government officials, including Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, and numerous deputy ministers on Saturday accompanied Pandor to the unveiling of the 16 dishes, the first of the envisaged 64 to be constructed on the vast expanse of land.
Patel paid tribute to Pandor for the SKA achievements.
"There are occasions when someone’s contribution stands out and I think minister Pandor, despite your modesty, you made this possible. You took what was an unpopular idea to say let’s put money into astronomy, the MeerKAT, and you said most importantly let us bid for the SKA. You travelled the world, twisted arms, and you made it possible eventually for South Africa to get the lion’s share of the SKA project that has helped to inspire and fire up the team here in Carnarvon," said Ebrahim.
He cautioned, however, that South Africa’s role in the astronomical jigsaw should not be relegated to only being the location hosting the numerous antennas.
"Our ambition is large, not simply to be the site where the dishes are located with output being processed elsewhere in the world, as we were the site in the 20th century for extracting minerals that were then transformed and beneficiated elsewhere in the world," said Ebrahim.
The MeerKAT, a project of the Square Kilometre Array South Africa, which is overseen by the national Department of Science and Technology, will comprise 64 dishes spread over 8km, 90km north-west of Carnarvon.
Scheduled to be completed by late next year, the MeerKAT will be one of the world’s most powerful scientific instruments. Eventually, the MeerKAT will be integrated into the even more powerful SKA telescope.
The SKA is an international enterprise to build the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, and will be located in South Africa and Australia.