Episode 61: Part 1 – SKAO Construction Commencement Ceremony – South Africa

Above: Scrolling transcript. See below for static transcript.

Episode 61 will be in two parts as Dan and Jacinta reminisce about their respective visits to the SKAO sites in South Africa and Western Australia in December last year for the Construction Commencement Ceremony for the Square Kilometre Array.

First up Dan tells of his visit to the site of the SKA-mid array, also the site of the MeerKAT Telescope, in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape of South Africa.

Dan shares his thoughts and memories of the day and some of the highlights of the events.


[00:00:00] Dan: Welcome to the Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama

[00:00:08] Jacinta: And Dr. Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at world class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

[00:00:17] Dan: Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

[00:00:25] Jacinta: Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies.

[00:00:32] Dan: Welcome to today’s episode. So, a little bit belated this episode, so it’s going to be a little bit of a flashback, but we are going to be talking about the commencement of construction ceremony for the Square Kilometre Array, which we both attended.

[00:00:45] Jacinta: Yeah, so this is our long promised episode, which we are finally publishing.

[00:00:50] Since we’re in season five, maybe we’ve got some listeners who are not so familiar, but we’ll start from the beginning. So, the Square Kilometre Array. Observatory, the SKAO [00:01:00] is, it’s basically going to be a massive radio telescope splitting into two different sites, partly built in Southern Africa, partly built in Western Australia, where I’m from, and the headquarters are in the UK.

[00:01:13] So this is a massive international collaboration of many countries that the current partner countries are South Africa, Australia, UK, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and with more to come, massive international project. One of the biggest in the world.

[00:01:28] Dan: Yeah. Very exciting and it’ll be completed probably in the next five or 10 years, there have been a couple of precursor telescopes already built in South Africa, the MeerKAT radio telescope, which you may have heard, about a 64 dish array and the most powerful radio telescope in the world right now. And that was completed in 2018 and has been operating very well with some awesome discoveries so far.

[00:01:51] In Australia, there were also precursor telescopes built the ASCAP array and the Murchison Widefield Array, and then those telescopes will [00:02:00] be incorporated into the larger SKA, which is currently under construction. So that’s where we are.

[00:02:05] Jacinta: So the Square Kilometer Array Observatory has been in the planning for something like 30 years now and we’re finally at the point where construction can commence. This was celebrated by the Construction Commencement Ceremony, or C3 for short on December 5th, last year.

[00:02:23] Dan: Which is my birthday, of course.

[00:02:24] Jacinta: Of course, important things in life.

[00:02:27] Dan: So Jacinta and I were very lucky to attend the commencement of construction ceremonies.

[00:02:33] Myself in South Africa at the MeerKAT telescope, where the high frequency SKA dishes will be built.

[00:02:39] Jacinta: And myself at the MRO or the Murchison radio observatory, which is out kind of in the middle of Western in Australia out in the desert, and that’s where ASCAP and MWA are. There’s lots of acronyms here.

[00:02:51] We’ll go through them as they’re needed, but for all intents and purposes, these are the precursors. The MWA in particular is a precursor to SKA-Low [00:03:00] so the low frequency antennas of the SKA, because so the two sites are split by frequency. There’s a lot of different radio wavelengths and we can detect different things at different wavelengths, so you have to build.

[00:03:13] Your telescope, the antenna differently to detect those different types of light. So SKA-Mid will detect kind of mid frequency radio light, which you need something that looks like a bit like a satellite dish to pick up. So those will be built in South Africa and they’re called dishes, whereas in Western Australia.

[00:03:32] You will be picking up the low frequencies and you need something that looks a bit different, which you really wouldn’t think of as a telescope, but it kind of looks like a metal Christmas tree. Then that’s SKA-Low over there.

[00:03:44] Dan: Or if you’re above a certain age, like an old school TV antenna.

[00:03:48] Jacinta: No, no one, no one will relate to that.

[00:03:52] Dan: Well, there we go. I did have my birthday, so I’m another year older.

[00:03:56] Jacinta: Anyway, this [00:04:00] episode is going to be split into two parts, which we intend to publish at the same time or around the same time, each part being the commencement ceremony in the different continents. So this part is going to be about the South African C3, and then the next part will be about the Australian one.

[00:04:18] Dan: Awesome. So we can start. I can start telling you about my trip.

[00:04:22] Jacinta: All right, Dan.

[00:04:22] So this is going to be the Daniel show for the rest of this episode. So Dan, take it away. How was the commencement ceremony in South Africa and what happened? Take us through the whole experience.

[00:04:32] Dan: The whole day waking up at, I don’t know, 3:30 AM or something. So very lucky to be able to be included and attend. Super exciting. It was my birthday, so I just hopped straight in an Uber. And went to the airport and not just any airport. We went to the ExecuJet terminal, which is private jet, because the MeerKAT radio telescope is getting built outside a small town called [00:05:00] Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

[00:05:02] It’s about an hour flat from Cape Town or a nine hour drive. So we try not to do the nine hour drive as much as possible. So it was very lucky to be included on the jet. There were actually four airplanes that went up that day and the first disappointment of my, I shouldn’t be talking about disappointments it was that it, I didn’t really get on a jet it was more of like a Cessna Grand Caravan from like the eighties .

[00:05:28] Jacinta: I was imagining you on this like executive jet, I feel lied to.

[00:05:34] Dan: In its defense. It was kitted out like a private jet inside. So we had luxury leather seats, you know, like backward facing, we had drinks, we had snacks.

[00:05:46] Jacinta: Okay.

[00:05:46] Dan: We also flew very low and slow, so we were the first airplane to take off and the last one to arrive, which was super. We watched the other ones come flying past us. They did some nice banks, waved at us, and then jetted off,[00:06:00] but very cool, and the other advantage of only flying, you know, 3000 meters up is that you, you have cell phone contact.

[00:06:06] Jacinta: Beautiful I presume.

[00:06:07] Dan: Beautiful flying over the Karoo. But enough about that, and then obviously flying into the MeerKAT site. So as I said earlier, there are 64 dishes already built making up MeerKAT. There will be another 130 or so added to that to make the SKA telescope and flying in, we did a sort of nice bank over that.

[00:06:26] And you can just see these dishes spread out over the Karoo where it’s very, very dry, very barren, not a lot else and these futuristic dishes peppered across there.

[00:06:38] Jacinta: I’m just dying of jealousy.

[00:06:48] Dan: So yeah very cool and then we landed on the plane and popped on some buses, went to the MeerKAT dish assembly building, which is a huge warehouse where all of the MeerKAT dishes were assembled before [00:07:00] they were put on their plinths, that had been decked out and draping and tables and made very fancy.

[00:07:07] There were about 200 people in attendance from the highest levels the ministerial and then including some members of the local staff and the local community all represented. So very, very special and amazing to be part of.

[00:07:22] Jacinta: Yeah, that sounds really cool.

[00:07:26] Dan: Yeah. So then the ceremony started off with some speeches.

[00:07:30] We got a speech by professor Catherine Cesarsky who we spoke to just a few episodes ago on the Cosmic Savannah, who is the chair of the SKA council and she gave us an introduction, welcomed us all to the ceremony and just talked about the magnitude of this project as Jacinta said, coming together after 30 years of planning and now becoming a reality.

[00:07:57] Catherine: Thank you, Dr. Nelva Munda. [00:08:00] So, your excellencies, your minister, distinguished guests, friends, colleagues. It is a great pleasure to be here with you in South Africa, and I warmly welcome you to the SKAO Construction Commencement Ceremony. Today’s event will take us on a journey that celebrates not only the significant engineering milestone for the SKAO Observatory, But also the cultural heritage of the people and land where we are standing in the Karoo and the positive impact the SKA project is having in local communities here.

[00:08:39] Of course, it is one half of an even bigger story, with a similar ceremony having taken place earlier today at the SKA site, in Western Australia. I would like to thank you all for being part of this momentous day for the SKA project.

[00:08:55] Dan: We [00:09:00] then had a few speeches by local politicians, as well as the minister of Science and Innovation Dr. Blade Nzimande, who again, just reiterated the support from the South African government that MeerKAT and the SKA has achieved. You know, we’ve spoken about this before, but for new listeners over the last 30 years in South Africa, there’s been a huge push to promote astronomy and grow astronomy in the country and on the continent.

[00:09:31] And this is the culmination of that. So it’s been amazing to witness from the SALT being completed, the Southern African Large Telescope back in 2005. To now, less than 20 years later, having the the square kilometer array, the largest science project in the world coming to our shores. Very, very cool.

[00:09:54] Distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen, I wish to greet you this [00:10:00] afternoon. Start by saying that I’m very pleased to be here. Maybe by way of background, it’s also important to say that ever since the dawn of humanity, somewhere in Africa around 300, 000 years ago, our ancestors have been looking at the celestial bodies in the night sky from the surface of the earth, as we’ve been told by the speaker just before me.

[00:10:27] It is hard to imagine them not wondering, like the famous French post impressionists. Painter, Paul Gauguin, who wrote hauntingly on the canvas of his intriguing oil painting of 1897, “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going to?” Since then, and over many centuries, humans have been harnessing the explanatory powers of modern science, aided by increasingly powerful new technologies, to [00:11:00] help us to peer deeper into the natural world, to begin to answer some of these questions.

[00:11:06] I’m also reminded on this day, by the way, that science still only understands five percent of it. So there is a long, long, long way to go and the SKA observatory no doubt will make a huge contribution in increasing our knowledge on the universe.

[00:11:29] Dan: So after the introduction speeches, we once again got into our vehicles and drove off to the site of the… first SKA prototype dish.

[00:11:42] So we have the 64 MeerKAT dishes there and they will be incorporated into the square kilometer array but the square kilometer array dishes are a slight upgrade on the MeerKAT dishes. You know, we’ve learned a lot in terms of the technology and that has been implemented into the new dishes.

[00:11:59] Jacinta: So [00:12:00] do they look different?

[00:12:00] Dan: Very slightly. So they have a slightly different shape and it’s not hugely noticeable but if you put the two of them together, you can see. So we went to the first SKA prototype dish, which had been put up and we got to see it. We got a nice introduction of the dish and how it was built.

[00:12:21] Speaker2: The SKA dish design probably started already about a decade ago, and construction of this antenna started in 2019, and it was commissioned and set to work a day before the first hard lockdown, COVID lockdown in South Africa started, which was end of March 2020, and since that date, We’ve managed to achieve our objectives on the SKA side by performing all the qualification testing we wanted to do.

[00:12:48] And at this point in time, Max Planck is busy with a single dish science on this antenna. This antenna, in my mind, is firstly probably the hardest thing to get right on a telescope. [00:13:00] There’s many reasons for that, but the performance of this thing is very high and it’s also out in the environment in the harsh sun.

[00:13:07] So it’s really difficult to get this right. That’s the first thing and for that reason, this is probably also in my mind the most valuable instrument constructed on the SKA project to date. We’ve had learned a lot of lessons on this antenna about the design and that enables us now to optimize our design to improve our performance before we go into construction where we’ll be building. About 80 more of these in the first phase for SKA.

[00:13:38] Dan: So the dish is 15 meters, the dish itself the collecting area and then that obviously stands probably five meters above the ground. So 20 meters up. Easy. Four, five stories.

[00:13:51] Jacinta: Wow. That’s way bigger than I was expecting.

[00:13:53] Dan: Yeah. And again, they moved it for us. So you kind of see this thing moving around [00:14:00] seamlessly. Yeah. I mean, they really are quite amazing things that they look great from the sky, but they look incredible in person too. They do look very futuristic and it’s a technological feat as much as anything building these dishes and putting them there and in this vast Karoo is really quite special. Yeah.

[00:14:16] Jacinta: Hmm. Was it a nice day?

[00:14:18] Dan: It was a beautiful day. Hot, hot.

[00:14:20] Jacinta: Okay.

[00:14:21] Dan: But I mean, it’s often hot in the Karoo, but yeah.

[00:14:24] Jacinta: It was hot in WA as well, yeah.

[00:14:27] Dan: It seems like radio astronomy and hot go together.

[00:14:30] So yeah, and then after that we had a little bit of entertainment. A plaque was unveiled at the first dish by the minister and Catherine, and then we had some entertainment. So we had. Some members of the local community who performed one of their traditional dances called real dancing, which is very active, very vibrant, super fun, it had everyone kind of getting excited.

[00:14:55] Jacinta: Did you get a video?

[00:14:56] Dan: I didn’t get a video, but I’m sure I can find one. Yeah. And I [00:15:00] was too busy recording the audio, which we can listen to now, lovely music too. And as I said, just very vibrant and upbeat and quite fun and had everyone smiling.

[00:15:53] Yeah, so very special day, amazing to be part of it, you know, one of the select few who [00:16:00] got to go to the site and witness what is going to be the beginning of an incredible journey. The Square Kilometer Array Observatory is going to be around for generations and we don’t know what it’s going to discover.

[00:16:13] But I’m pretty sure it’s going to be amazing and there’ll be stuff we haven’t even dreamed of coming out of it.

[00:16:20] Jacinta: I just get goosebumps every time I think about it.

[00:16:23] Dan: So yeah, very special and then yeah, a long day, a flat home, but back in my own bed that night and yeah, very grateful. A good way to spend my birthday.

[00:16:33] Oh, and I did mention this previously.

[00:16:35] Jacinta: I was going to say, surely you’re gonna tell the story

[00:16:38] Dan: I nearly forgot the best part.

[00:16:40] Best part for me. Jacinta and I joked before that I should take some cake on the plane because it was going to be on my birthday and I should share it with the minister and others. In the end I did actually get cake on the plane.

[00:16:52] I didn’t take it myself, but when we arrived back in the plane, we had our dinner there.

[00:16:56] Jacinta: Oh my goodness.

[00:16:59] Dan: [00:17:00] A nice little dinner platter with some nice food and a cake each.

[00:17:05] Jacinta: They must have known it was your birthday.

[00:17:07] Dan: Exactly. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

[00:17:10] Jacinta: Good. Double down on that, Dan. Oh, well, that sounds like a really amazing day, actually.

[00:17:18] Yeah, sounds really cool.

[00:17:19] Dan: Yeah, and we’ll hear about your day in the next episode.

[00:17:22] Jacinta: Yes, yes, in the part two of this. This episode, I guess.

[00:17:26] Dan: Good. I look forward to it.

[00:17:27] Jacinta: Yeah.

[00:17:29] Dan: Thanks very much for joining us, and we hope you’ll join us again on the next episode.

[00:17:33] Jacinta: You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com, where we’ll have the transcripts, links, pictures, and other stuff related to today’s episode.

[00:17:40] Dan: As always, you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, at Cosmic Savannah. That’s Savannah spelled S A V A N N A H. You can also find us on YouTube, where audio only episodes are uploaded with closed captions, which can be auto translated into many different languages, including Afrikaans, isiXhosa, and isiZulu.

[00:17:59] Jacinta: Thanks to our social [00:18:00] media manager, Sumarie Hatting, and our long suffering audio editor, Jacob Fine.

[00:18:05] Dan: Also to Mark Wallnut for music production, Michal Wierczek for photography, Carl Jones for astrophotography, and Susie Karras for graphic design.

[00:18:13] Jacinta: We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Cape Town astronomy department.

[00:18:25] Dan: You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and we really would appreciate it if you could rate and review us and recommend us to a friend.

[00:18:33] Jacinta: We’ll speak to you next time on the Cosmic Savannah.