Space, South Africa’s New Frontier

JOHANNESBURG – By hosting the World Cup this month, South Africa is set to defy Africa’s image as too poor and trouble-ridden to stage one of the world’s great spectacles. With its pursuit of research into the farthest reaches of the universe – deep space – South Africa hopes to provide further proof that Africans can compete at all levels.

South Africa is investing heavily to join the world’s leaders in space research. The government is investing in “micro” satellites, building on its existing SumbandilaSat platform.

It is also leading the African effort to host what is widely described as potentially the world’s largest scientific instrument, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope. The SKA, whose massive collection of dishes would stretch across nine African countries, is a next-generation telescope that will examine gas clouds in the early universe at 100 times the power of the most powerful existing radio telescope, the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

An international selection committee has already eliminated China and South America, leaving only Australia and Africa – both clear choices for geographic reasons – in the running. To lend credibility to its bid to host the SKA, in 2006 South Africa’s government committed $250 million to build an array of radio dishes within its own borders as a precursor to the SKA. Seven of the planned 80 dishes in the network have been built.