Why competition for the SKA Telescope is important for tech

A recent article in Nature states that South Africa has won the backing of the SKA Site Advisory Committee to host the SKA Telescope. Although the report states that the victory was by a very narrow margin, it is great news for South Africa and many of the other participating African nations. If you’re wondering what this has to do with your usual dose of IT news, it’s actually very important.

The SKA Telescope is a radio telescope that consists of over 3 000 radio dishes with a total surface area of one kilometer squared. In order for it to be effective, these dishes will be dispersed across the continent, extending out to distance of at least 3 000 km from a concentrated central core, and will need some impressive networking and processing power in order to communicate in real-time. That means that we’re likely to see some pretty impressive spin-off technology.

The communications network alone will use enough optical fibre to wrap around the circumference of the earth twice over, and will carry nearly 10 times the amount of global network traffic on the Internet. From a computing perspective, the SKA central computer will have the processing power of around one-billion PCs, performing around 10^18 operations per second. Commensurate with this sort of hardware, the financial investment in the project is huge. Current figures are set at around US$2.1-billion. Along with the international prestige that hosting the telescope will bring, there are the added advantages of construction contracts, job-market growth and an increase in highly skilled labour in the location that the SKA telescope is ultimately hosted.

Naturally competition has been fierce to host the telescope, with Australia and New Zealand listed as extremely close contenders. However, South Africa has pushed hard to win the bid. The country’s government has offered to cover some of the basic infrastructure costs and to help with the laying of all that fibre-optic cable. Furthermore, it has guaranteed radio-quiet within the spectrums that the telescope will be monitoring. With the continent gaining massive improvements to its international bandwidth and able to offer a greater level of redundancy through cabling running up either coastline, Africa certainly is much less remote than its contenders. South Africa also offers greater altitude, which is good for monitoring higher radio frequencies.

That’s not to say that Australia and New Zealand can’t pip South Africa at the last moment. With the final decision less than a month away and meetings being held on a regular basis, the advisory committee is far from the last say on the matter. Australia and New Zealand can offer much lower insurance costs for the infrastructure providing greater long-term security over a lower initial deployment cost, as well as diminished likelihood of future urban development affecting the telescope. Next week, China, Italy, Britain and the Netherlands will meet to discuss the recommendation and to vote on the final location of the site. A final decision will probably be announced on 4 April.

Wherever the SKA Telescope actually ends up, the competition to host it has already helped to push development in South Africa. South Africa has already started building prototype telescopes to demonstrate its willingness to host the SKA Telescope. The MeerKAT radio telescope is already under development. This will be the largest radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere until the SKA Telescope is completed in 2024.

Last week, South Africa announced that it was teaming up with IBM to develop data-analytics software for MeerKAT, which will ultimately prove invaluable to the SKA project. The project is opening up jobs and is putting development work out to tender. It has also helped to fund bursaries at South Africa’s universities and has been described as a “talent magnet”, bringing some of the smartest minds to the country. In a month’s time, we will know whether this is going to hold out for the long-term, and if it does, I believe that we will see a flurry of technical innovation coming out of the country.



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