Peering into mysteries of space

A new radio telescope array is set to look into the furthest-known reaches of universe, as it was 13 billion years ago.

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    Africa is where we first stood upright, and where we first learned to use tools.

    Now it's also where we have the best chance of learning about the very beginnings of the universe, with a tool that will push scientists and engineers well beyond the boundaries of their existing skills and knowledge.

    From deep in space, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will pick up radio waves to decipher our universe and how life began - well before this little blob in the galaxy called Earth was even a twinkle.

    There's something remarkably vague about it all, too, because, at the end of the day, you don't know what's out there until you really try to look.

    South Africa's won the lion's share of this remarkable project, and it will host two-thirds of the 3,000 dishes - while rival bidder Australia will have the rest. It's called the SKA because the surface area of all the dish antennae adds up to a square kilometre.

    Professor Justin Jonas, who is a part of the project, has it right when he says Africa is becoming a destination for science and engineering, and not just for mineral resources and tourism. It will change the way many people think of Africa, he says, because the presence of SKA is not based on the fluke of natural gas deposits, seams of gold or the evolutionary accident that put elephants and zebra here.

    This new reputation is built on brains and business. Of course, some would say the government shouldn't be spending at least $55m this year alone on a giant telescope when there are a lot of South Africans who don't have jobs, or even  running water. But tell that to the science or math graduate who's top of their class and used to think their only option was to work overseas.

    Four hundred graduates have received bursaries through SKA, and the world's finest scientific minds will be coming here to work on the project, exploring the universe. And, of course, someone's going to have to maintain those 2,000 dishes, and someone will have to develop and make the tools they need to do so.


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