Heat-seared plains, low buttresses and rutted, never-ending roads. Roughly the size of Germany, the Great Karoo sprawls across central South Africa, a mythical desert landscape dotted with desolate towns. A former seabed, this is fossil land; a countryside echoing with early San-Bushmen footsteps and Anglo-Boer War cries. In the heart of this expanse, etched against the Karee mountains sits Carnarvon, a former missionary station and sheep farming village. It was an unassuming dot on the map – that is, until 2012.
Now, the world looks to this humble village to clarify mysteries as old as time.
In 2012, South Africa won a bid to host the lion’s share of The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an intergovernmental radio telescope project to be completed in the next decade.
First conceived in the early 1990s, SKA is headquartered at the University of Manchester in the UK. With member countries including South Africa, Australia, Canada, China, Italy, Spain, Sweden, The Netherlands, and India behind its funding, it will become the world’s largest radio telescope, enabling astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail, thousands of times faster than before. A segment will be constructed in Australia too, with a shared data collection area of one square kilometre. Even in its infancy, the project saw a flurry of research from top minds around the globe. Scientists believe SKA will shed light billions of years into the past, revealing secrets around the origin of the universe. They say it will show how stars and galaxies formed and changed, provide insight into “dark matter”, and allow testing of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Some hope it will even facilitate discovery of extraterrestrial life.
Today, eighty kilometres from Carnarvon on rocky flatland surrounded by squat hills, construction is underway. To date, 64 dish-shaped antennas – 13.5 metres in diameter and four storeys tall – peer up into the sky. Collectively known as MeerKAT, they will form part of SKA Phase One.
Some 700 kilometres southwest, in a small boardroom in Cape Town, the managing director of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, leans back in his seat. Dr Rob Adam’s face is flushed while discussing the culmination of his passions, but his words thoughtful and precise.
A former director general of South Africa’s Ministry of Science and Technology, with a PhD in nuclear physics, no doubt Adam’s political clout steered the country’s SKA bid to success. “After the end of apartheid, academic boycotts against South Africa lifted,” he recalls. “Suddenly the world opened up. It was incredible. We had access to global funding, so we were wondering what types of science to pursue. One of the areas we looked at was astronomy.
“Why would northern hemisphere countries want an observatory in the south? Well, first of all, there’s less development. People are the enemies of astronomy, in terms of light pollution and radio interference. But there’s another fundamental reason. If you think about it, and it might sound silly, but you can’t see through the Earth. So if you are in the north, and you’re trying to look at the sky, Earth gets in the way. And so, we saw an opportunity for South Africa to offer itself as a global astronomy destination.” At a workshop to discuss South Africa’s astronomy strategy, the SKA came at a perfect time. “They put it to me that we could either become partners in the SKA – become a member and support it built somewhere else – or make a pitch to have it located in South Africa,” recalls Adam. “And me and the guys, being young and sort of not risk averse, said ‘damn it, let’s bid for the thing!’ So I went and got the go-ahead from my minister. You know, go large or go home.”
At the time, South Africa, Australia, China and Argentina were vying to host the project, in what journalists dubbed “The Star Wars”. Beyond a catchy rivalry, there was a serious pragmatism behind South Africa’s winning bid, says Adams. “We decided early on to populate our proposal with both engineers and scientists. You need scientists to provide disruptive influences. But scientists alone don’t get things done; I mean, they have new ideas every morning. You also need engineers who kind-of freeze the specs, who get things started. So that heavily influenced our bid, which I think was appreciated. And we continue in that vein.” Though the main site will be based at Carnarvon, a large part of SKA’s work will be done from Cape Town, which has long been an astronomy hub.
The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory offices lie at the foot of Table Mountain, in the aptly-named suburb of Observatory. Just across the road is the British Royal Observatory, originally built in 1820 next to a hippo-filled swamp. Its notable visitors included London polymath and astronomer John Herschel, who published Results of Astronomical Observations in 1847. Interestingly, Herschel was joined in Cape Town by the young naturalist Charles Darwin, who would later note him as an influence on The Origin of the Species.
A historic past, but one that perhaps is not at the forefront of mind for SKA’s scientists, concerned as they are with creating something similarly groundbreaking in the current day. Downstairs in the Cape Town offices, Dzialwa Ramulongo’s fingers are flying over laptop keys, screens flashing up figures and graphs. She is operating MeerKAT remotely, collecting data for scientists from around the world.
“We want as few people as possible on the Carnarvon site, as people create interference,” says Adam. “For example, even the electronics we use on site to process the signals from the stars has to be shielded, as otherwise our own computers would interfere with what they’re trying to process. They are inside a building, inside a kind of a wire cage. You know, a bit like nuclear containment but for radio frequency.”
The residents of Carnavon are hoping for a brighter future for this small village. There have already been unexpected benefits; the pupils at Carnarvon High School could possibly boast of the fastest internet in all of South Africa, connected as it is to SKA’s super fibre network.
“I feel so blessed, there are so many stories here,” says Pieter Hoffman, who runs the Lord Carnarvon guesthouse. “I mean, it’s been tough, with rural depopulation and the drought. These are difficult times. But yes, the SKA has been good for the community, importing science and maths teachers to the school, giving bursaries. What a journey it’s been: from nothing, to this. In a way, it feels like you’re a part of it.”
The site is located on 133,000 hectares of bought farmland, with plans to turn it into a national park. A weekly-chartered flight gets scientists and engineers from Cape Town to Carnarvon in a nine-seater jet, or there is the option of a seven- to ten-hour journey by car.
On a long drive, as well as discussing the implications of SKA for the future of astronomy, scientists may well be also regaled with tales of Africa’s own star lore, where stars have been considered to be people; holes in the great vault that is the sky; even tiny porcupines. Whether to prod our past or to guide the future – our gaze remains upturned. All in all, a breathtaking safari in the African sky.