Africa will be ready for the SKA project – Dr Jasper Horrell


The recent awarding of part of the SKA (Square Kilometre Array) Project to South Africa is a boon for Africa and while the project will take a couple of years before it actually comes into effect, it is expected to create a lot of exciting opportunities for the continent.

Dr Jasper Horrell, the General Manager of Science Computing for the SKA project (image: Charlie Fripp)

During Gartner’s annual Symposium and ITxp 2012, Dr Jasper Horrell, the General Manager of Science Computing for the SKA project said that the project is good for Africa because it emphasises Africa as a natural destination for world-leading science, and brings Africa together as a global enterprise.

One of the reasons why South Africa bid for the SKA project was to establish and sustain itself as a world-class site for radio astronomy.

As previously established, most of the telescope will be hosted in South Africa, with the SKA1_MID, SKA2_MID and SKA2_AA units being set up in the Karoo.

The MeerKAT and ASKAP pathfinders will also be incorporated into SKA Phase 1. Horrell added that the site in the Karoo was chosen as there is a lot of empty space and that it has a low-level of radio noise.

“We wanted to take full advantage of the African geographic landscape, and the Northern Cape provides an excellent radio-quiet core location. Astronomy also drives innovation, which will in turn stimulate technology and skills development investment in South Africa,” Horrell said.

Horrell also explained that the awarding of the project to South Africa will be good for Africa as long-term operations should benefit the host countries and that Africa is ready for the iconic project. “Astronomy is benign, yet it is a cutting-edge and international science that promotes open exchange between countries, governments, business and academia,” he said.

But it will not all be plain sailing as a number of needs will have to be addressed for the massive challenge. Horrell said that the amount of data being generated by the SKA project will be massive, and one of the challenges will be to implement affordable, flexible stream processing.

“We also need the effective utilization of millions of cores, and affordable graduated, mass storage. The people working on the project will also need to have esoteric radio astronomy data processing skill, and algorithm developers with a statistical bent.”

In terms of hardware running the entire project, power and cooling efficient computing will be needed in order to run a smooth operation, while computing advances over the next 10 – 15 years will play a key role.

In conclusion, Horrell said that Africa has risen to the SKA challenge, and that much has been accomplished, “but the real work is just the beginning for SKA, as we still need to look at political, organizational, technical, and funding aspects need to be addresses”.

“SKA provides a focal point for renewed international interest in Africa and so brings great opportunities for development of skills, technology and logistical support. Big data is also a big concern for SKA, and the challenges are being met step-by-step. This truly is exciting times!” Horrell concluded.

Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor