Dust rises from the tyres of a brimming trailer as a bakkie trundles slowly over dry farm roads in the Northern Cape. Antennae and receivers are strapped into the trailer and catch the still hot autumn sun.
The instruments will be used to find the most “radio quiet” site. Inside the cab, members of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa project office, including SKA SA associate director for science and engineering Justin Jonas, are searching for the best site in the country for radio astronomy – and there are 25 possibilities on the list, most of them in the Northern Cape with its low rainfall and clear skies.
About 250-million years ago, this region was a large inland sea and travelling through it is like traversing an ocean bed – sandy mountains rise up around you, mottled with seaweed-like shrubs, the only difference being that there is no water in sight.
That was nearly 12 years ago. Today Losberg Farm and its environs (about 120km from Carnarvon) – the place finally selected as the core SKA site, which will be the heart of the world’s largest radio telescope – is home not only to South Africa’s own radio telescopes but also to astronomy experiments from all over the world.
Jonas, a soft-spoken man partial to wearing collared short-sleeve shirts and hiking boots, said that one of the first guests to the site in 2004 was his friend Steve Rawlings, a professor in Oxford University’s astronomy department who died in early 2012. “Steve came on one of the trips, and he said: ‘Build it and they will come. If you start doing this sort of thing, other people will show interest.’ And he was right,” the Rhodes University physics professor said.
“Other people in the world started looking at [the site] and saying, ‘You’ve got a site; we’d like to put down an experiment there.’ …
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