MD of the SA arm of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project, Rob Adam, on developing smart algorithms, finding the ‘unknown unknowns’ and the spin-offs for science and technology


Q: What is the Square Kilometre array (SKA) project and why all the excitement?
A: SKA is the premier radio astronomy project in the world and is to be constructed in SA and Australia. It is a radio telescope that’s 50 times more sensitive and up to 10 000 times faster in survey speed than any other telescope. And because it will be able to detect radio waves from objects billions of light years away from Earth, it will be able to answer a broad range of scientific questions.

Further, in being one of the most advanced technological projects ever undertaken globally, it will connect big data with astronomy. SKA will provide us with key lines between astronomy, fundamental particle physics and cosmology.

Alongside its development will be advances in the design of supercomputers that will be needed to process data at rates far faster than the current global internet speed and traffic. We can also expect to see an entirely new way in which we build sophisticated and sensitive scientific instruments, which will no doubt lead to new innovations in many industries.

Q: What are the expectations?
A: SKA will investigate key scientific questions such as did Einstein get it right with his general relativity theory; are there other cosmic beings in the universe; what is dark matter and dark energy; how are stars and galaxies formed; and how has the Universe itself changed over its lifetime of 14 billion years?

We will also be able to study where the magnetic fields in the cosmos come from and the role they play in the formation of galaxies and stars.

The engineering challenges of the SKA puts us in a new league in terms of how we compute big data. It provides us with really smart algorithms that will allow us to find things in the data that no-one expects – the ‘unknown unknowns’ – and will likely be used to answer questions that have not yet been asked.

Such knowledge has the potential to change everything we currently know, be that behaviour, our thinking, the manner in which we live… Literally everything could change, so ultimately everyone benefits.

Q: How does an investment in radio astronomy impact other scientific disciplines on the continent?
A: The most direct impact is through big data and computing. The platforms being developed can be applied to literally anything that requires information from huge data sets.

In radio astronomy terms, the platform used is data science and what this does is look for relationships in things that may or may not even exist, and find correlations.

Such algorithms can seek out spurious data sets and find new relationships in data. An example would be determining whether a malaria outbreak will develop in a particular region by correlating the amount of stagnant ground water with the amount of time it takes for water to reach a particular level of saturation.

This is a typical example of a correlation that would normally be extremely difficult to make. Such information enables predictions to be made.

Q: Given big data is considered one of the modern drivers of the economy, how will SKA influence the manner in which big data is developed on the continent?
A: In terms of science, big data has huge spin-offs for governments that invest. You need only look at how the Apollo space programme in the US gave rise to Silicon Valley. It created a new dynamism in electronics. Anything that aligns to big data has applications elsewhere.

Q: How significant is SA’s role in SKA?
A: SKA is an international not-for-profit project involving 10 countries, with the input of more than 100 organisations from 20 nations.

It is divided into two phases and will be hosted by SA and Australia. For the first phase, KAT-7 was built in the Karoo. This prototype comprised seven telescopes that proved so successful it put SA on the map, proving that we have the capabilities to host the SKA.

KAT-7 was never intended to be anything other than a test of our engineering capabilities but its production of scientific images has created such interest by astronomers and scientists that it is currently being used for research, with a number of published articles generated from its use. Also part of the first phase is MeerKAT – a 64-dish radio telescope, fully funded by SA and currently under construction in the same region.

With KAT-7 absorbed into MeerKAT, and MeerKAT ultimately integrated into SKA, it really shows our country – indeed the continent – in a very different light in terms of how the rest of the word perceives us, and what we are capable of.

It puts us at the cutting edge of technology and as such will attract the highest level of the global scientific community and students to our shores to undertake research and exploration.

At this stage, SA is slated to invest some 14% of total funding of the project and the country represents the African continent’s interests.

Q: Why was the Karoo selected as the site for SKA and what are the benefits for local communities?
A: Radio astronomy needs the relative absence of human activity to avoid radio interference, which would disturb the telescope. In other words, devices such as mobile phones or hairdryers that have their own radio emissions. The site also needs to be at a high elevation and in a dry region, given that high-frequency radio waves can be absorbed by moisture in the atmosphere. The Karoo has these characteristics and more.

We’ve purchased a total of 130 000 ha of land (the equivalent of 32 sheep farms). However, no farmworkers’ jobs have been lost as a result. In fact, those workers have been absorbed into land maintenance and other roles, and they continue to receive market-related incomes.

The fear was that there would be a negative impact on the local sheep farming economy. Instead there is far more investment than what could have been lost, and while local inhabitants’ lives may have changed, the techniques being introduced into the area offer new employment and career advantages.

The building of KAT-7 and MeerKAT have brought about opportunities in civil works, catering and maintenance, to name a few. During road construction, for example, Absa creatively offered local contractors risk-free finance to enable them to enter the bidding process.

We have also established an artisan training centre that provides training in optical fibre technology, electrical and other technical fields. In this way, we are stimulating the future of young scientists, technicians and engineers who will have the expertise and skills to work in a range of scarce and innovative fields.

We also look for partnerships in healthcare and school/university education, in addition to connecting to nearby renewable projects. We are prepared to meet obligations to ensure the youth are supported in maths, science, engineering, data and IT, and we have provided the means for local matriculants to enter university to obtain degrees in the spectrum of work that SKA embraces.

Q: Along with Agri SA, SKA recently met with the San Council, custodians of the Karoo. What was the outcome?
A: We are cognizant of those who have preceded us on this land and, bearing in mind that SKA is going to be around for at least 50 years, we are happy to live and work side-by-side with the history-rich communities of the Karoo. Together with Agri SA, which represents the interests of farmers, we met and signed an agreement with the San Council, which represents communities in the region. The partnership is a commitment to help develop medicinal plant life on the SKA site, assist in preserving ancient San artworks and culture, and ensure the traditional knowledge of the San people is preserved.

In a very moving ceremony, San Council members blessed the SKA site, which further illustrates that all involved understand the depth of our commitment to broad-based support.

Q: What obstacles lie ahead?
A: We’re really rather lucky because in radio astronomy things are always done in a modular fashion, so the SKA project faces few challenges. You can’t, for instance, build half a telescope so once MeerKAT is signed off, the first phase of the SKA itself will begin in earnest. On completion, SA will be providing the mid-frequency ranges, with high-frequency being catered for at the sister site in Australia.

The only challenge I can think of is that everyone – and here I’m talking about the countries involved – want to justify their investment and all would clearly enjoy having their own engineers be part of it. We need to divide the project in a way that offers everyone value for money and all investors just returns. But the results are already proving just how viable SKA is. MeerKAT performs better than its spec, which sends a strong message to the world – SA can do this.

By Kerry Dimmer
Image: Hanlie Huisamen
Repro artist: Karin Livni