South Africa is in the cusp of history as the country is well on course to assume pole position in global science governance. 

This follows the signing of a treaty earlier this week to establish the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Observatory, which will oversee the building and operation of the Square Kilometre Array for the next 50 years. The SKA will be the largest science facility on the planet, with an infrastructure spread across three continents in both hemispheres.

This holds great promise for South Africa’s youth as they will be part of a life changing process where the country is awarded multi-billion Rand contracts to build the world’s largest radio telescope. Benefits will include jobs and skills development. Already start-ups are already being created to take advantage of the opportunities.

According to the Daily Maverick this ground breaking deal was pulled off after 3 years of protracted negotiations between seven countries namely, South Africa, Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom. It is said while looking at the universe it will be able to collect 8.8 terabytes of data per second. (The average person is familiar with a gigabyte – one terabyte equals 1,000 gigabytes.)

Five things you need to know about the SKA project:

The SKA Observatory is now an intergovernmental organisation, only the second one in the world dedicated to astronomy, other than the European Southern Observatory.

The SKA will be used for up to 50 years and the prototype dish is already being constructed on site in the Karoo

Construction will start in 2020 on the SKA site, 90km from Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

After completion South Africa’s precursor instrument, the MeerKAT, will be integrated into the SKA’s first phase. MeerKAT, which consists of 64 radio antennas, is already observing the skies.

The SKAO in the Karoo will consist of three spiral arms, stretching across 150km. It will have an astronomical collection area of 126 tennis courts, which can be compared to an optical telescope having a mirror that size.

Initially 2000 dishes will be constructed in the country, but this will depend on the success of the first phase and the sourcing of funding.

Its two networks of hundreds of dishes and thousands of antennas will be distributed over hundreds of kilometres in Australia and South Africa, with the headquarters in the United Kingdom.

Prof Philip Diamond, Director-General of the SKA Organisation which has led the design of the telescope, added:

The treaty was signed on behalf of South Africa by Minister of Science and Technology Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane.

“What makes this particularly unique is the fact that for the first time, Africa, Asia, Australasia and Europe committed on an inter-governmental level to collaborate on a large-scale science project as equal partners. This represents the start of a new era for global science governance,” she says.