UK-South Africa Newton Fund joins SKA in celebrating the construction of the world’s largest telescopes

On Monday, 05 December 2022, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Observatory celebrated a scientific milestone in radio astronomy as it has begun constructing the world’s largest telescopes.

New discoveries from space will help answer crucial questions about the earliest periods of the universe. Scientists will use the radio telescopes located in South Africa’s Northern Cape province and Western Australia, with headquarters in the UK, to fill the knowledge gap in astrophysics.

The UK and South Africa have advanced research capabilities in radio astronomy. They have contributed to the work at SKA through international partnerships like those funded by the Newton Fund.

Since 2014, the UK-South Africa Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) and DARA Big Data programmes have offered radio astronomy and data science skills training to young science and engineering students from across SKA Africa partner countries including: South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Zambia and Namibia.

Some of the students trained through these programmes are contributing to major scientific breakthroughs in astronomy. For example, Dr Zafiirah Hosenie, a Physics and Astronomy PhD graduate at the University of Manchester in the UK was recently awarded the IoP CPG Thesis Prize. The prize was awarded to recognise Zafiirah’s research, which used machine learning techniques to detect challenges arising from the large data volumes that are prevalent in modern astronomy. Algorithms developed from this research have been successfully deployed at the MeerKAT radio telescope array and the MeerLICHT optical telescope, both located in South Africa.

Building science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills in radio astronomy and data science is crucial for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and a key driver for sustainable development for emerging economies in Africa. This is why the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, South Africa’s National Research Foundation, and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, supported the DARA and DARA Big Data initiatives, targeting countries building radio telescopes to form the African VLBI Network as part of their participation in the SKA project.

The construction commencement of the SKA radio telescopes that are expected to be completed by 2028, has been announced in the same week world leaders, the scientific community, and policy-makers have gathered at the 2022 World Science Forum hosted by the Department of Science and Innovation in Cape Town, South Africa. It is the first time that the forum is hosted on the African continent and will facilitate engagements on the role science should play in society.

In a news piece released by SKA, Science, Research and Innovation Minister George Freeman said “This is an incredibly exciting and important moment, both for space science, but also for the increasingly commercial space sector, and for the communion of countries, nations working together to ensure that we build an open, integrated, safe space for science and the space economy going forward. So congratulations to all of those who've helped to make this possible. We are as the UK very proud to be one of the three host partners of the SKA Observatory and I'd like to congratulate colleagues in South Africa and Australia on achieving this latest milestone and helping us to bring one step closer operation of this really exciting observatory.”

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