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How Terrestrial Science can help Astrophysics at SKA

By Simon Todd, SAEON, Joh Henschel, SAEON and Tracy Cheetham, SKA-SA
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The Square Kilometre Array South Africa and SAEON have entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) which recognises that SAEON’s research mandate aligns with SKA-SA’s information needs for environmental management - representing mutual value addition.

SKA is a mega-science infrastructure project requiring collaboration across many institutions and partner countries. Both South Africa and Australia were awarded the bid to host the SKA, which, once completed, will be the largest radio telescope in the world. Following a rigorous selection process, approximately 130 000 hectares of land in the Karoo near Carnarvon was eventually chosen as South Africa’s host site for the SKA.

Both SKA-SA and SAEON are business units of the National Research Foundation (NRF), a Government Agency of the Department of Science and Technology (DST). SKA-SA acquired the land required for placing the radio telescope as well as the buffer zones surrounding the core that will ensure that the telescope is protected from radio frequency interference.

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As an international flagship science project, it is a key requirement that the SKA demonstrates informed and responsible management of the terrestrial infrastructure on which it is being built. (Picture: Simon Todd)

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The SKA is a mega-science infrastructure project requiring collaboration across many institutions and partner countries. (Picture: SKA)

Terrestrial science challenge

Managing a large area of the Upper Karoo is a very different proposition from looking into deep space to answer questions about the origins and make up of our universe, but possibly an equally challenging one! SAEON will assist SKA-SA with this terrestrial science challenge.

As an international flagship science project, it is a key requirement that SKA demonstrates informed and responsible management of the terrestrial infrastructure on which it is being built. SAEON is tasked to provide long-term ecological observation to inform climate and land use change science in South Africa. The acquisition of the land necessary for the SKA represents an opportunity for SAEON to establish a long-term ecological observatory and meet the site management information needs of the SKA.

Long-term ecological research

SAEON has recognised the potential value of long-term ecological research on the location of the SKA site in an area which is projected to experience large amounts of climate change over the next 50 years. This also presents a rare opportunity to study the changes that are likely to take place when the land use of the area changes from extensive farming to conservation-orientated management. The site is also an ideal benchmark against which to reference other land use-related changes that are happening in the greater Karoo region.

The SKA-SAEON partnership represents an opportunity for both entities to create a win-win situation for science in South Africa.

Research results will assist SKA-SA to manage its site according to best-practice environmental principles and make decisions on ecological changes or problems at the site as they occur. Potential issues include alien plant control, herbivore and predator management and associated changes in veld condition.

These problems will require baseline data to establish a status quo against which changes and the results of management actions can be measured.

SKAEON

The MoU between SKA-SA and SAEON sees the establishment of a steering committee called SKAEON, which will be responsible for the management and coordination of ecological research and monitoring at the SKA-SA site. SKAEON will include representatives from both organisations and will direct the management-orientated ground-based research, training and monitoring at the site.

The SKA-SAEON partnership represents an opportunity for both entities to put their best foot forward and create a win-win situation for science in South Africa. The research at the SKA site will be integrated into the broader SAEON research and monitoring strategy and inform management of the SKA as well as broader-scale science in the wider Karoo region.

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Tracy Cheetham of SKA SA (left) and Prof. Yonah Seleti of DST (centre) listen to Dr Helga van der Merwe of SAEON. SAEON’s Dr Simon Todd can be seen in the background. (Picture: Joh Henschel)

The SAEON team (Tshililo Ramaswiela, Betsie Milne, Helga van der Merwe and Marco Pauw) investigate an ephemeral pan at the SKA site. (Picture: Joh Henschel)

The presence of SAEON at the SKA will increase the local science content and training output of the site, as well as ensure that the presence of the SKA in South Africa generates knowledge and science that can be used on the ground to benefit land users in the surrounding areas and in the country in general.

The SKA-SAEON partnership turns a potential headache into an asset and shows that through such partnerships, greater value can be unlocked and realised through collaboration.

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