The Square Kilometre Array South Africa mega-project under way in the Karoo is a transformative scientific scheme with wide-ranging implications.

The latest spinoff from the multinational radio astronomy project is the introduction to South Africa of study modules in big data. A collaboration between SKA SA and the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) offers courses in the fundamentals of big data research. The funding partner for the study programme is the Newton Fund through Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA). The Newton Fund is supported by the UK government.

The SKA will be the world’s largest radio telescope, made up of thousands of antennae throughout Australia and Africa, centred on the area around Carnarvon in the Northern Cape. SKA will be tackling really big questions: What is dark matter? When did life begin? How are galaxies created?

South Africa’s own 64-dish MeerKAT telescope, which will form part of the SKA, started coming on line in 2016. Once all 64 dishes are operational, a cellular phone signal from Saturn will be within the scope of this amazing set of instruments.

South Africa is one of only three countries to have passed legislation to create an Astronomy Reserve and this helped persuade the international decision-makers that South Africa should be the host (with Australia) of the SKA. There are 17 countries on the project, with the headquarters in Manchester, England. In Africa, a total of eight countries will host SKA antennae, including Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

The town of Sutherland, 245 km south-west of the site of SKA, already hosts an array of telescopes that have a long history of providing scientists with excellent data in clear skies above the flat and dry Karoo.

Sectors in the Northern Cape to benefit include tourism and hospitality. A number of local firms have become involved through the provision of at least 75% of the components.

To ensure that local contractors have access to some of the work, the Kareeberg and Karoohoogland Contractors’ Forum was established. Ten local contractors are receiving training in how to prepare to tender for projects, with a particular focus on the 80km road that links the town of Carnarvon to the SKA site.

Three South African universities (University of Cape Town, University of the Western Cape and North West University) are cooperating to operate the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy.

For more information, contact the Northern Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism.