South African students at forefront of massive astronomy project

| Tessa Gooding
PhD researcher Moses Mogatsi who was funded by SKA. Photo courtesy of SKA South Africa.

Mpati Ramatsoku and Moses Mogotsi are two South African PhD students who are being funded to work on one of the most exciting science projects of the decade: the Square Kilometre Array.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the most powerful telescope ever made allowing us to see further than ever before. It will consist of thousands of antennas–spread over 3000km–working together as one gigantic instrument to create a radio telescope at least 50 times more powerful, and 10,000 times faster than any other radio telescope currently in existence. The telescope will help to unravel the mysteries of the universe before even the stars and galaxies formed. The estimated cost of building the telescope is over R16 billion.1

In May 2012, the international SKA organisation announced that South Africa and Australia would jointly host the world’s largest radio telescope project, though South Africa would host 70% of it.

Radio astronomers will use the SKA to understand questions, such as:

  • How do stars form and how do galaxies evolve over time?
  • What is ”dark matter” and ”dark energy”?
  • Was Einstein right about gravity?
  • Are we alone in the universe?

According to the SKA South Africa website: ”Radio telescopes work in much the same way as your radio. As you tune your radio to different frequencies, the receiver in your radio picks up different music stations. Radio telescopes do pretty much the same thing. However, they collect radio waves from objects millions or billions of light years away from earth. If you heard what was being received however, it would sound like static hiss. These radio signals are then processed by computers that can interpret the signals, to form images that give us snapshots of the universe.”

Many African countries will also benefit from the project. Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia will all host antenna stations and are expected to gain from jobs being created, funding opportunities and collaborations between universities.

The majority of the SKA telescope will be located at a remote site in the Northern Cape’s Karoo, 80km from the rural town of Carnovon. Young people in Carnovon are being taught about the project in the hope that they may want to get a job connected with the research in the future – this will make a big difference in a town where more than half of the 5,900 residents are without jobs.2 Construction will start in 2013 with the aim of achieving operational capability by 2016 and of being fully operational by 2024.

SKA South Africa are also promoting the fact that South African industry will profit from this project. South African company Stratosat Datacom has successfully bid for the highest value contract of the MeerKAT phase of the project. They will design, build and install 64 antennas in the Karoo. The contract is worth R632 million and 70% will be spent in South Africa on design, testing and manufacturing.

The most important additional benefit of the research, however, will be the generation of young scientists and engineers with cutting edge expertise who are developed through the project. In South Africa, this is particularly important given the lack of achievement in maths and science subjects. A recent World Economic Forum financial development report rated South Africa’s science and maths education the worst of 62 countries surveyed.

Professor Roy Maartens, who is the SKA Research Chair in the Astrophysics Group at the University of the Western Cape, said, ”It’s great to see young black South Africans benefiting from this project. Some have had to cut short their careers in astronomy because their families need them to get a job that pays more money. Those who manage to stay in the project will become the strongest ambassadors for the SKA, spreading the message of SKA science and its value to South Africa.”

Since 2005, the African SKA Human Capital Development Programme has awarded 425 grants for studies in astronomy and engineering from undergraduate to post-doctoral level, while also investing in training programmes for technicians. Of the 301 bursaries that were awarded to men, 138 went to black men. Black women received 48 of the bursaries, while 56 went to white women. Mpati Ramatsoku and Moses Mogotsi are both South Africans who received a post-doctoral grant. GroundUp met them at the seventh SKA Africa Postgraduate Bursary Conference held at the Wallenberg Centre at Stellenbosch University last week.

GroundUp: Can you tell us about the course you are doing and a little about your background?

Mpati: I’m 25 and have been supported by the SKA project since the third of year of my undergraduate degree. I’m from Qwaqwa in the Free state, where I attended Beacon High School. Without the funding, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do a PhD in Astro Physics at the University of Cape Town. I probably would have left my studies behind me.

Moses: I’m 24 and am from Rustenburg in the North West, where I went to Rabboni Christian School. I attended Rhodes university for my undergraduate and masters degrees in Physics. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do this PhD without the funding.

GroundUp: Were you always interested in science as a child?

Mpati: I started getting into astronomy because [I was interested in] dark stars and I’ve been studying astronomy ever since. [A dark star is a star like object that emits little or no visible light. Its existence is known from other evidence, such as crossing over other stars.]

Moses: Ever since I was a child I wanted to be a scientist – I was fascinated by the stars.

GroundUp: Did your family support your ambitions?

Mpati: Yes, very much so. They wanted me to pursue it.

Moses: Yes, though no one in my family knows much about science.

GroundUp: What is your role in the SKA project?

Mpati: My role is to help survey and map neutral hydrogen, the most common element in the universe and the main component for forming stars.

Moses: I’m studying the gas in nearby galaxies. We’re trying to understand them and identify which galaxies are best to observe. We are also looking at how stars form galaxies.

GroundUp: Who was your role model as a child?

Mpati: My parents. My dad studied Physics, so everything we did we saw through the eyes of science.

GroundUp: When you first heard about the SKA project, what were your initial impressions of it?

Moses: I thought it was such a cool project but I didn’t realise how big it would be until recently.

GroundUp: Why do you think the SKA project is important for South Africa?

Mpati: It’s going to be great not only for the economy but also for how people view Africa and South Africa. Science drives progress and the project is doing a lot of outreach work.

Moses: Science is an important part of modern life. We need to try and give people a basic understanding of science and SKA is an inspiring project that should help with that.

GroundUp: Do you think the government is doing enough to develop young scientists?

Mpati: The government is definitely trying. Carnovon, where the telescope will be located, is protected by the government. And through programmes such as the research foundation they are supporting a lot of young people.

Moses: Getting kids to meet scientists is always good. Putting images to ideas and involving the science community with schools are the most important things I think.

GroundUp: What motivates you to be a scientist?

Mpati: Finding out something new is really exciting.

Moses: I’m interested in finding out about the unknown and everything around us.

GroundUp: What would you like to achieve in your career?

Mpati: I’d like to get my PhD and be at the forefront of discovery.

Moses: I’d like to be able to say I contributed to our understanding of science and have demonstrated how interesting science is.

GroundUp: What would you say to aspiring young South African scientists?

Mpati: Know that there are opportunities for funding out there. It can be done. You just have to stay motivated.

Moses: People like it when you’re keen. So if you’re young and interested, try and get in touch with people who are doing what you’re interested in. And despite what people say, you can make a living out of being a scientist.

Some interesting facts about the SKA

  • The data collected by the SKA in a 24-hour period, would take nearly two million years to play back on an iPod.
  • The SKA will generate enough raw data every day to fill 15 million 64 GB iPods.
  • The SKA central computer will have the processing power of about one hundred million PCs.
  • The SKA will use enough optical fibre to wrap twice around the Earth.
  • The dishes of the SKA will produce 10 times the current global internet traffic.
  • The aperture arrays will produce more than 100 times the current global internet traffic.
  • The SKA will be so sensitive that it will be able to detect an airport radar on a planet 50 light years away.
  • The SKA will contain thousands of antennas with a combined collecting area of about one square kilometre (that’s one million square metres).3
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