One of the two MeerKAT dishes at the SKA site, Northern Cape. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
One of the two MeerKAT dishes at the SKA site, Northern Cape. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) SA project office has acquired half of the land it needs to create a radio-quiet zone around the large radio telescope and is on track to complete the process by the end of 2018, says spokesman Lorenzo Raynard.

It is an important milestone in a sensitive process as, if the farmers in the area refuse to sell their land, the government can expropriate it. The SKA is an international science project located in SA and Australia and will be the world’s most powerful radio telescope once completed. The South African core is 90km from Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

About 131,500ha of land surrounding the telescope’s 176-dish core needs to be free from radio-frequency interference. The project acquired 13,500ha of this land in 2008. In 2016 it embarked on a process to acquire another 118,000ha comprising 36 parcels of land close to the core as well as access rights to servitudes that will hold another 21 dishes.

The SKA SA project office has acquired 14 parcels of land, comprising 61,000ha and needs to buy another 18 parcels of land totalling 57,000ha. Four parcels of land originally earmarked for purchase no longer needed to be bought, but would provide access rights to servitudes, said Raynard. The land-acquisition project is one of three SKA processes under way in SA. The Department of Science and Technology has been driving the implementation of legislation to protect the site from radio interference.

The Department of Environmental Affairs has been overseeing a strategic environmental assessment conducted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

On Sunday the Department of Science and Technology published a full-page advertisement in the Sunday Times summarising the findings of a report commissioned by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor on the legality of the government’s plans to protect the SKA from radio interference with regulations to the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act.

Draft regulations to the act were published in November 2015 and in April 2016 to allow for further public consultation.

The department received 68 written submissions and conducted public hearings in Pretoria and Carnarvon in October.

The report concluded all legally required steps had been taken to ensure public participation in the process. It found no evidence for allegations the SKA had failed to consider the project’s environmental impact.

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