Shell plans could threaten SKA

Cape Town – Oil giant Shell’s plans to prospect for shale gas in the Karoo could affect South Africa’s bid to build the world’s biggest radio telescope, MPs heard on Wednesday.

Science and technology deputy director-general Val Munsami said Shell’s plans were starting to raise questions among international partners.

They were asking how such exploration might impact on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), he told Parliament’s science and technology portfolio committee. SA and Australia were shortlisted in 2006 as locations for the SKA project.

The SKA will cost about €2bn to build, and require between €150m and €200m a year, for 50 years, to maintain and operate.

The radio telescope – brainchild of a consortium of major international science funding agencies in 16 countries – comprises 3000 giant antenna dishes, each the height of a three-storey building.


Astronomers plan to use the SKA to peer back through time, across vast distances, to investigate the history of the universe and when the first stars were formed.

The SKA core site in SA is near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, where many of the dishes would be erected.

The plan also includes locating receiving stations, each comprising about 30 antenna dishes, in eight other African countries, some as far away as Ghana and Madagascar.

An announcement on who has won the bid will be made early next year.

Munsami said on Wednesday questions about Shell’s plans were starting to “creep in” to South Africa’s international lobbying strategy.

“Obviously, from a SKA perspective, we are concerned about it… In terms of the international lobbying strategy, it’s starting to creep in as well; the international partners are starting to ask where this is going and how it will impact the SKA.”

The department was looking at the implications of the oil company going ahead with its exploration for shale gas.

Management authority

“One key piece of legislation we have in place is the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, which regulates the area in terms of radio interference,” Munsami told the committee.

“Obviously we will be looking at whether, in terms of exploration, there is any radio interference. If there is, we will have to have that discussion in terms of the regulatory framework.”

A management authority was being put in place within the department to deal with the matter, and “to ensure regulations are fulfilled in terms of protecting the SKA”.

There was also “ongoing” discussion between his department and the department of energy on the matter, Munsami said.

Committee chair Nqaba Ngcobo noted the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act gave the sole right to regulate the zone in which the SKA would operate to the minister of science and technology.

“So I think that’s not a problem… There is no way Shell can go ahead with that; the Act does not allow it. It can’t,” he assured members.

Anita Loots, associate director of South Africa’s SKA team, said a key issue was that nothing untoward happened while radio frequency interference (RFI) tests were being conducted in the Karoo.


A team from the international SKA technical committee is currently in the country to carry out such RFI tests. Similar tests are being conducted in Australia.

The team’s report will contribute toward determining which of the two countries win the bid.

“The key issue for us is that while the RFI measuring campaign is going on in South Africa and Australia, that there is nothing happening in the Karoo that requires people to carry a cellphone, or some sort or radio transmitting equipment, or whatever can actually impact on that measurement,” Loots said.

“Because… although the fracking may happen quite a bit later, the immediate effect of it is if there are very strong radio signals in that area because of the exploration.”

The “fracking” referred to is hydraulic fracturing, a technique for extracting shale gas from deep underground by pumping a pressurised mixture of water, sand and chemicals down drill holes.

Some facts about the Square Kilometer Array (SKA).

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be a mega radio telescope, about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope.
SKA is a €1.5 billion project, with operating costs of about €100 million a year.
It will be the first to provide mankind with detailed pictures of the “dark ages” 13.7 billion years back in time.
This mega telescope will be powerful and sensitive enough to observe radio signals from the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang.
If there is life somewhere else in the Universe, the SKA will help us find it.
At least 24 organisations from 12 countries, including Australia, Canada, India, China, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA, are involved.
The SKA will consist of approximately 4 000 dish-shaped antennae and other hybrid receiving technologies.
Both South Africa and Australia have suitably remote, radio quiet areas for hosting the SKA and have competing bids to host the SKA.
If Africa wins the SKA bid, the core of this giant telescope will be constructed in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape Province near to the towns of Carnarvon and Williston, linked to a computing facility in Cape Town.
Other countries where stations will be placed include Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Mauritius, Madagascar, Kenya and Zambia.
South Africa is already building the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT) which is a precursor instrument for the SKA, but will in its own right be amongst the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world.
Why is Africa the best site for the SKA? 

It provides the complete astronomy solution:

Most valuable for science
Low levels of radio frequency interference and certainty of future radio quiet zone.
Significant investment in skilled human resources – bursaries for scientists from across Africa, training for            technicians and artisans.
Best imaging
An ideal physical environment (little water vapour, calm stable weather conditions).
Most Affordable
Required land, labour and support services available and very affordable.
Most Reliable
Core basic infrastructure of roads, electricity and communication already in place .
Ideal geographical location, sky coverage and topography.
Safe and stable area with very few people and no conflicting economic activities.
Most Options
The astronomical “richness” of the southern skies & strong tradition of astronomy.
Excellent academic infrastructure to support SKA science and technology.

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