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This year has seen the return of SARAO’s hosting of the Big Data Africa School after a pause of more than three years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 4th Big Data Africa School was funded by the UK Newton Fund under the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) Big Data project.

This year’s school hosted 25 participants in Cape Town from 5 to 11 March 2023, with participants hailing from diverse regions in Africa. The participants ranged in age between 19 and 39 years of age with 7 Doctoral degree students, 10 Masters degree students and 8 Bachelor of Science (Honours) / Engineering students. The countries represented at the 4th Big Data Africa School are South Africa, Namibia, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Ghana, Morocco, Kenya, Algeria, Ethiopia and Uganda.

The aim of the Big Data Africa School is to introduce fundamental data science tools and techniques to science and engineering graduates at various academic levels of their studies. Apart from introductory lectures in data science, the focus of the school is on students getting hands-on experience by working on real-life data sets which forms a large component of the school’s programme.

The thematic area for the 4th Big Data Africa School was selected as healthcare / biomedical imaging with SARAO joining forces with experts in this area from partnering institutions IBM Research Africa, University of Barcelona, Namibia University of Science & Technology (NUST), African Network for Artificial Intelligence in Biomedical Imaging (AFRICAI), University of Basel and the University of Cape Town (UCT), who provided the relevant projects and data sets, as well as the mentors who worked continuously with groups of participants throughout the week. Partner, the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) provided the Cloud infrastructure and computational resources needed for carrying out the projects.

This year’s school offered a range of exciting projects in the healthcare domain, which included detecting of out of distribution samples in healthcare: Malaria as a use case (IBM Research Africa); 3D Vertebrae reconstruction from 2D X-ray imaging (University of Basel, UCT); Explainable AI of medical images using SHAP and LIME (NUST); Combating data scarcity in medical imaging – using AI to generate synthetic images using breast mammograms as a use case (University of Barcelona); and the application of deep learning techniques to automate the process of cardiac disease diagnosis which can be generalised across different clinical centres, imaging conditions and scanner vendors (University of Barcelona).

Carla Sharpe, SARAO Africa Programme Manager, said at the welcoming ceremony: “I am always blown away at how these young people use their very advanced skills and brilliant minds and solve really basic on-the-ground problems. It really moves me and sticks in my mind.”

Invited speakers at this year’s school included Prof. Yves Wiaux from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh who serves as the Head of the Biomedical and Astronomical Signal Processing (BASP) Group. Prof. Wiaux’s presentation focused on data calibration techniques used in radio astronomy imaging which can be applied to medical imaging, drawing synergies between the radio astronomy and biomedical imaging communities. His presentation was complemented by invited guest speaker, Prof. Tinashe Mutsvangwa, from UCT who presented on 3D bone reconstruction from 2D X-ray images. Prof. Mutsvangwa also gave an overview of the South African environment for his work and its challenges within an African setting.

The participants were given guidance in formulating their final presentations by Mark Johnson from SARAO’s Commercialisation unit. Johnson undertook the “Skills for Industry” component of the school giving participants insight to formulating a pitch for a panel of potential funders and how to view their projects as a potential business. These sessions with invaluable insight from SARAO’s Commercialisation unit were offered to students in the evenings in preparation of their final presentations.

Another important activity at this year’s school included the celebration of International Women’s Day on Wednesday, 8 March 2023. “It is the first time we are running the Big Data Africa School with a predominantly female majority,” commented Dr Bonita de Swardt, Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for Human Capital Development at SARAO. The women participants at this year’s school comprised 18 out of the 25 participants, making over 70% of participants female. De Swardt further added: “It will be interesting to observe the team and overall dynamics of participants in an environment not commonly seen in STEM. We will continue to strive including women and girls in our initiatives to ensure that they are not left behind in the digital revolution.”

Participants were treated with a cake that celebrated the anniversary of the publication of SARAO’s Women in Data Science report and its achievement in attaining the first school with an apparent gender equity. In addition, the in-country Director for Women in Tech South Africa, Melissa Slaymaker, joined participants on Friday, 10 March 2023 as part of the week’s Women’s Day celebrations. Slaymaker presented the work being carried out by Women in Tech in Africa and globally, and informed participants how they can become part of the network of women making a difference in access and participation in STEM activities.

The final group presentations were held on Friday, 10 March 2023, which was followed by a social networking evening and prize-giving dinner. The panel of judges included Dr Nikhita Madhanpall (OAD), Prof. Karim Lekadir (University of Barcelona), Prof. Wiaux, Prof. Mutsvangwa, Nathi Ndlovu (CSIR), Johnson and Sharpe.

The group and individual prizes were announced in the evening with the OOD Red Star team (out of distribution samples in healthcare: Malaria as a use case) taking first place, followed by the Golden GANS (Combating data scarcity in medical imaging – using AI to generate synthetic images using breast mammograms as a use case) being runners up.

Individual prizes went to Refiloe Shabe from Lesotho for showing the best team leadership; Rancy Chepchirchir from Kenya for showing the most progression during the week of the school; and Emmanuel Hansingo from Zambia for embodying the ‘spirit of the school’.

The prize-giving dinner was attended by Chris Austin, Development Director at the British High Commission in Pretoria, who added “There is no right way or wrong way to approach problems, but the collective way, thinking about what evidence there is, what data there is and what you can do with it is super exciting. It is fantastic to hear what you have been working on through this programme, bringing some clever people together from all over Africa. The UK government has been delighted to support the DARA programme over several years and I hope that this legacy will continue”.

“What makes running these schools successfully is great partnerships” adds De Swardt. “It is fantastic that SARAO, a radio astronomy observatory, can host these skills training events in scientific areas that are broader than our mandate as an organisation. Thank you to all our partnering institutions for their commitment to these programmes.”

The final day of the school involved a scenic tour of the Cape Peninsula where participants got to see some of Cape Town’s iconic marine life and landscape such as the African penguins, Cape Point Nature Reserve and seal island.

4th Big Data Africa School participant, Maziko Mphepo from Malawi, provided his thoughts on the school from the perspective of a student: “From the informative and engaging sessions to the well-planned social activities, everything was flawlessly executed. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to connect with other like-minded individuals and learn from industry experts in such an immersive and inspiring environment.

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to attend this year’s school and gain new skills and knowledge in my field of interest. The efforts and hard work SARAO and its partners have made a significant impact on my personal and professional development, and I cannot thank you enough.

I truly appreciate SARAO’s hard work and commitment to providing a top-notch educational experience. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this program, and I’m sure that all the students share my sentiments.”

While using the MeerKAT radio telescope to study a distant galaxy towards PKS 1830-211, scientists discovered something unexpected: gas clouds made up of some of the largest hydrogen atoms in the universe, Rydberg atoms. It is the first time scientists observed these hydrogen atoms in a distant galaxy. What’s more, they believe the large atoms are spread throughout the galaxy in ionized interstellar gas clouds. The discovery could help researchers to understand the nature and evolution of interstellar gas in galaxies and how Rydberg atoms are formed in space. An article reporting this discovery was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal (link).

Located in the constellation Sagittarius, PKS1830-211 is a very distant quasar 11.1 billion light years away (redshift 2.5). However, it is one of the brightest radio sources in the sky since the high-power jet from its super massive black hole is pointed directly at Earth. PKS 1830-211 is a hot spot for studying astrochemistry in the universe. The light from PKS 1830-211 passes through a foreground galaxy 7.3 billion light years distant (redshift 0.89) on its way to Earth, illuminating molecular chemistry in the spiral arms of the foreground galaxy. This rare alignment has allowed the large Hydrogen atoms to be observed.

A Rydberg atom refers to an atom with an electron in a high energy state. Radio light amplifies the Rydberg atoms. Under just the right conditions, the atoms become naturally occurring lasers, and light becomes brighter at the radio wavelengths emitted by the atoms. Finding just the right conditions for this to occur in distant galaxies has been a long standing mystery. But next-generation radio telescopes observing the Universe at cm to meter wavelengths are making it possible for the first time.

The South African MeerKAT radio telescope is currently the most sensitive radio telescope observing at these wavelengths. Large surveys that cover the sky using wide bandwidth receivers have high enough precision to look for spectral fingerprints from many wavelengths simultaneously. The MeerKAT Absorption Line Survey (MALS; https://mals.iucaa.in/) is one such survey which observes at 18 to 52 cm wavelengths. Because MALS is targeting the brightest radio sources in the sky, it is currently the most sensitive survey for detecting absorption signatures from hydrogen atoms (in the ground state) and molecules like OH – and unexpectedly, also the large Rydberg atoms.

Using the MALS survey, scientists found 44 fingerprints from Rydberg atoms. “We used hydrogen Rydberg atoms to study the physical and dynamic structures in a galaxy 7.3 billion light years away towards PKS 1830-211. The Rydberg atoms could be coming from large clouds of gas that are ionized by the radiation from young massive stars. These atoms tell us that interstellar gas in this galaxy is much more dense than what is found in the Milky Way,” says Kimberly Emig, a Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) of USA and lead author of the paper.

Scientists hope to discover more of these oddball atoms. Emig explains, “We were excited to discover these high-excitation hydrogen atoms in such a distant galaxy. It gives a new way to observe our Universe and possibly study the evolution of interstellar gas in galaxies over cosmic time. They could also help us to understand how interstellar gas drives and inhibits the activity of super massive black holes.”

PKS 1830-211 was the first target of MALS. Its observations helped to characterize the performance of the new MeerKAT telescope.  The large volumes of MALS data (1.6 petabytes) are processed using an automated pipeline utilizing the task and tools based on the Common Astronomy Software Applications (CASA) package of NRAO, at a dedicated high performance computing facility setup at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), India.

The MALS survey primarily uses a transition of atomic hydrogen at 21 cm wavelengths and transitions from the hydroxyl (OH) molecule at 18 cm wavelengths in order to determine the occurrence of atomic and molecular gas in and around galaxies. “Only a small number of these transitions have been detected in distant galaxies so far due to technical limitations. If we detect a large number (several 100) of these transitions then we can assess the physical conditions of cold gas which serves as fuel for star formation in galaxies. Studying ionized gas through hydrogen Rydberg atoms is highly complementary to studying interstellar gas in its atomic and molecular phases and would help us to explain the changes in the properties of galaxies at different ages of the Universe,” explains Neeraj Gupta, astronomer at IUCAA  and lead investigator of the MALS project.

Making this discovery has been a team effort. The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory operates the MeerKAT telescope. An international collaboration from India, Europe, South Africa, North America, and Australia carries out the MeerKAT Absorption Line Survey. Data from the observations is processed through tools of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Thoughtworks Technologies India Pvt Ltd, among others.

Notes to Editors:

The scientific results of this study are published in:

Discovery of Hydrogen Radio Recombination Lines at z=0.89 towards PKS 1830-211 Kimberly L. Emig, Neeraj Gupta, Pedro Salas, Sebastien Muller, Sergei A. Balashev, Francoise Combes, Emmanuel Momjian, Yiqing Song, Preshanth Jagannathan, Partha P. Deka, Gyula I. G. Jozsa, Hans-Rainer Klockner, Abhisek Mohapatra, Pasquier Noterdaeme, Patrick Petitjean, Raghunathan Srianand, Jonah D. Wagenveld, 2023, accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal


The South African MeerKAT radio telescope, situated 90 km outside the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon, is a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope and will be integrated into the mid-frequency component of SKA Phase 1. The MeerKAT telescope is an array of 64 interlinked receptors (a receptor is the complete antenna structure, with the main reflector, sub-reflector and all receivers, digitizers and other electronics installed).


MALS is the MeerKAT Absorption Line Survey. MALS consists of 1655 hrs of MeerKAT time (anticipated raw data ~ 1.7 PB) to carry out the most sensitive search of HI and OH absorption lines at 0 < z < 2, the redshift range over which most of the cosmic evolution in the star formation rate density takes place. The MALS survey is described in Gupta et al. (2016).

Key Science Themes of MALS:

  1. Evolution of atomic and molecular gas in galaxies and relationship with star formation rate density
  2. Fuelling of active galactic nucleus (AGN), AGN feedback and dust-obscured AGNs
  3. Variation of fundamental constants of physics
  4. Evolution of magnetic fields in galaxies, and
  5. Physical modeling of the ISM, Astrochemistry and Cosmology.

Twenty-two students from South African universities have converged at Rhodes University to participate in the MeerKAT Grand Tour Data Science workshop held from Sunday, 15 to Saturday, 21 January 2023.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) has awarded its 2023 Group Achievement Award to the MeerKAT team. In its citation, the RAS recognised the MeerKAT team “for a series of spectacular observations in radio astronomy, the highlight being the images of the Galactic Centre region and the spectacular radio bubbles. In addition, the MeerKAT team has supported the development of science and technology in Africa and stress-tested technology for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).”

In ceremonies at both sites in Australia and South Africa, the SKA Observatory celebrated the start of construction of its world-leading radio telescopes and announced €300 million worth of construction contracts.

The SKAO’s Director-General, Prof. Philip Diamond, travelled to Western Australia to represent the Observatory at the site of the future SKA-Low telescope. Council Chair Dr Catherine Cesarsky attended the event in South Africa’s Northern Cape province where the SKA-Mid telescope will be located.

In her address, Dr Cesarsky said: “The SKA project has been many years in the making. Today, we gather here to mark another important chapter in this 30-year journey that we’ve been on together. A journey to deliver the world’s largest scientific instrument. After 18 months of intense activities around the world, we are starting construction of the SKA telescopes.”

Over the past 18 months, over 40 contracts worth more than €150 million have been entered into by the observatory. On Monday, major new construction contracts worth over €300 million were announced at the ceremonies.

Minister Ed Husic from Australia and South Africa’s Dr Blade Nzimande announced more than €200 million for Australian and South African companies to deliver some of the extensive infrastructure required for the telescopes.

The SKAO also announced the major contracts – worth €100 million – to manufacture the antennas for both telescopes, bringing the total amount of construction funds allocated so far by the observatory to close to €500 million.

Representatives of the communities surrounding the telescope sites had pride of place in both ceremonies. In Australia, guests received a traditional Welcome to Country from members of the Wajarri community, the SKA-Low site’s native title holders and Traditional Owners. Across the Indian Ocean, attendees witnessed a special “meerkat” version of the ancient riel dance around a newly-cast SKA dish foundation.

The construction commencement ceremonies took place 18 months after the SKAO’s Council approved the building of its two telescopes. Initial procurement concentrated on developing software, contracting professional services firms to help oversee construction, and bulk-buying components such as programmable circuit boards currently in short supply worldwide.

These 40 or so contracts paved the way for construction to start on site. In South Africa, this phase will eventually see 133 SKA dishes added to the existing 64 of the SKA-precursor telescope MeerKAT to form a mid-frequency instrument. Australia will host a low-frequency array of 131,072 antennas shaped like Christmas trees, allowing the two telescopes to cover a wide swath of radio frequencies.

The telescopes require vast infrastructure. Listed company Ventia will put up site-wide power and fibre infrastructure in the SKA-Low telescope’s core and spiral arms and fabricate and commission the central and remote processing facilities. In South Africa, the Power Adenco joint venture will construct gravel access roads, cast dish foundations, lay on power and optical fibre networks, erect security fencing, and more.

Competitive tendering also took place to procure the telescopes’ lead components: the antennas and dishes themselves. On Friday 2 December, the SKAO finalised the two contracts for these critical hardwares.

Italian company SIRIO will build the low-frequency antennas for the SKA-Low telescope in Western Australia, with important participation from the UK. In China, one of the Observatory’s long-term partners, CETC54, will manufacture the SKA-Mid telescope’s dish structure. Parts will be produced in several countries, including Italy, Spain, and South Africa.

In their announcements, the science ministers elaborated on the contractual conditions that the SKAO placed on infrastructure providers to include local communities.

In South Africa, the lead infrastructure contractor is required to spend a proportionate amount locally by providing a range of sub-contract opportunities to local SMMEs, on employing, training and transferring skills locally and on other community development initiatives.

In Australia, the aim is to create nearly 100 new roles for the Wajarri Yamaji and locals in the Mid West region of Western Australia.

The Indigenous Land Use Agreement recently signed between the Wajarri Yamaji and the Australian federal and Western Australian governments as well as CSIRO, expanded Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory to enable construction of the SKA telescope there.

The agreement ensures that Wajarri Yamaji cultural heritage will stay protected and that they will receive sustainable and intergenerational benefits in areas such as enterprise and training and education. About 400 km of ground was surveyed to map areas of cultural significance, and the layout of the SKA telescope array was amended to avoid significant Wajarri heritage sites.

In recognition of the agreement, the Wajarri gifted the site the traditional name – Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, meaning “sharing the sky and stars”.

“We want to be good neighbours to all of the local stakeholders where our infrastructure is located,” said Prof. Diamond. “It’s important that we play our part in supporting the local economy as well as the national one, and we’re doing our small part to ensure this is the case. For example, we’ve instructed infrastructure contractors to ensure local businesses are engaged and benefit from those contracts as well.”

With its large infrastructure and telescope component contracts in place, the SKAO is on track to reach its next milestone: ensuring that the first four SKA-Mid dishes and six SKA-Low stations (of 256 antennas each) work together as a telescope.

The first two antenna stations are due to be completed by May 2023, while the first dish is set to be installed in April 2024, followed by three to four dishes each month.

Procuring mass-produced dishes and antennas represents a step-change for radio astronomy. Instead of bespoke and one-off components, manufacturers can develop new techniques to produce such elements, potentially offering new product lines.

Thanks to the telescopes’ design as interferometers – where the signals of multiple telescopes are combined to act as one giant telescope – the first notable scientific results can be expected before the telescopes are completed at the end of the decade.

The SKA telescopes will be managed from the SKAO’s Global Headquarters at Jodrell Bank near Manchester in the United Kingdom. Scientists will use the two arrays over the course of their expected 50-year lifespan to answer crucial questions about the earliest epochs of the universe, and unravel some of the most profound mysteries in astrophysics.

“The SKA telescopes will truly revolutionise our understanding of the universe,” said Dr Cesarsky. “They will allow us to study its evolution and some of its most mysterious phenomena in unprecedented detail, and that’s really exciting for the scientific community.”



You’ll find artists’ impressions of the future telescope, pictures and video material of the ceremonies, as well as ministerial and other supporting statements in our online repository, and a dedicated webpage with more material on our website.


More comments

SKA-Low Site Construction Director, Ant Schinckel: “This event marks a wonderful milestone for the SKA Observatory and the world’s science community. We are about to begin building the world’s largest radio telescopes, and here in Australia, we are doing it with the support and close cooperation of some of the oldest astronomers in the world, the Wajarri people. I am excited to start constructing the SKA-Low telescope on this ancient land, so ideally suited for radio astronomy.”

Wajarri Yamaji Nyarlu (Wajarri Yamaji Aboriginal Corporation Chairperson), Jennylyn Hamlett: “We’re all connected to this Country, regardless of where we come from. We are Wajarri, we are here and we’re ready to share, so welcome aboard.”


SKA-Mid Site Construction Director, Tracy Cheetham: “Forming part of SARAO’s successful design and delivery of the SKA precursor MeerKAT has been incredibly rewarding. Now the moment has arrived that I’ve been working towards for the largest part of my career: managing the on-site construction of the SKA-Mid telescope under the SKAO banner. The scale of the science infrastructure investment so far provides a crucial foundation for the SKA project in South Africa. The SKA-Mid telescope promises to be of benefit to the country, global science, and our local communities that have played an instrumental role in preparing for and achieving this milestone.”


Ventia Group Executive – Telecommunications Mark Ralston: “We are thrilled to be partnering with the SKAO on this exciting and world-leading endeavour. To support the delivery of this project, nearly 100 new roles will be created for the Wajarri people and locals in the Mid West region of Western Australia. As Australia and New Zealand’s leading telecommunications infrastructure service provider, our strategy is to redefine service excellence by being client-focused, innovative and sustainable.”


SIRIO Antenne CEO, Stefania Grazioli: “We are honoured to take part in this exciting and challenging scientific project. Since 2017 we have been working and collaborating intensely with INAF and the SKAO to develop a product that could best fulfil characteristics and performances suitable to satisfy such an important task and it’s incredible how the project on paper has finally become true. This experience was extremely important for Sirio to learn how to act with large and structured international organisations. The company and the people involved in the project have had a very important opportunity to grow in experience and know-how, so we are more than proud to be part of this great project and we will do our best to be a good partner for SKAO.”


Chief Executive Adenco Construction, Kashif Wicomb: “The SKA project is truly a project of global importance and literally universal impact. Adenco Construction is proud to be associated with and working on the SKA project and being part of a South Africa and Africa based project working with a team of international experts.”


Power Construction CEO, Cobus Snyman: “It is an honour and a privilege for us at Power Construction to be a part of this prestigious project, which is set to benefit not only our company, but more importantly, improve the lives of the surrounding communities as well as our understanding of the universe. We take exceptional pride in what we do and how we do it. We are therefore looking forward in working with our partner Adenco Construction, the professional team as well as the communities to deliver this world class project for SKAO.”


CETC SKA Office Vice Director, Wang Feng: “The start of construction of the SKA telescopes and signature of the dish structure agreement marks a great milestone. The CETC54 team is honoured to take part in this mega science project. I would like to express my thanks to everyone involved in making this possible, from our technical team and cooperation partners from South Africa, Germany and Italy to the colleagues and friends from SKAO and the Ministry of Science and Technology. Without their help and support, none of this would be possible. The high performance of the SKA dish is the result of many years of Chinese research and development combined with international cooperation.”


Supporting statements

Member countries

Australia: Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic

“The cutting-edge technology for the SKA telescopes will expose Australian businesses to new skills and capabilities. We will see these changes flow on to benefit the community, the businesses involved in the project, and Australia, more broadly, for generations to come. We should all be proud of our involvement in this project. This is a historic day, and I am sure we will see many breakthroughs from the SKA project.”

South Africa: Minister of Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande

“On behalf of the South African government and its people, I congratulate the SKA Observatory on effectively managing the complex process of planning and designing the SKA telescopes. I also wish to congratulate SKAO in managing the complex intergovernmental interactions that resulted in the formation of the SKAO itself and the signing of the hosting agreements with Australia and South Africa. I therefore try to also reaffirm South Africa’s commitment to the SKA project, and pledge South African government’s continued support for the SKA Observatory as it moves into our country to continue managing the process of construction of the SKA. The official start of on site construction of the SKAO telescopes is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate excellence and multilateral collaboration in science and acknowledge the SKAO’s strong bonds with its partner nations. Moreover, this important milestone heralds a new chapter of direct relationships between SKA Observatory and the local communities around the telescope sites, in particular building on years of work in community engagement by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. The South African government welcomes the opportunities that will flow into the country, due to the construction activities of the SKA. Local companies will benefit from construction contracts [and] local people will find jobs. The financial resources flowing into the country will also uplift the economy of South Africa.” (Full statement available online.)

China: Minister of Science and Technology, Wang Zhigang

“The construction commencement ceremony is a great milestone in the development of SKAO and also the remarkable result of the long-term concerted efforts of all participating countries. In this global collaboration and endeavour on astronomical science and technology, all countries display both cooperative attitudes and pragmatic action to stay open and inclusive and seek common development. On behalf of the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, I’d like to extend warm congratulations on the commencement of construction at the SKA sites in South Africa and Australia of the next-generation SKA telescopes. Science is not bound by national borders, and innovation is a never-ending endeavour. As an important carrier to strengthen international science and technology cooperation and deepen bilateral and multilateral intergovernmental exchanges, international mega-science projects are important tools for mankind to push the frontiers of knowledge, explore the unknown and address important global issues. The SKA telescopes, an international mega-science project integrating basic sciences and cutting-edge technologies, such as radio astronomy, fundamentals of physics, mathematics and modelling, communication technology and big data, provides a major opportunity for mankind to better understand the universe. China will continue to fulfill its commitments and contribute wisdom and strength to the SKA project. Our country is willing to join hands with all participating countries in global collaboration, jointly constructing, delivering, and sharing the world’s largest synthesised aperture radio telescope to explore the vast universe and create a better future for mankind.” (Full statement available online.)

Italy: Minister of University and Research, Anna Maria Bernini  

“Finally, the SKA radio telescope is no longer a mere project but a reality. The largest telescope in the world, with thousands of antennas spread across two continents, is destined to define our present and our future. It is one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken, and I am particularly proud to be able to say that this project is very much tied to Italy. Right from the onset, Italy has played a leading role through its National Institute of Astrophysics. Italy contributes to the project not only financially and in terms of technology but, first and foremost, through its excellent human resources. Something in which we are leaders. The SKA Observatory is a demonstration that Italy has all the resources to participate fully in space exploration from the ground. This is truly an extraordinary endeavour. We are taking a fundamental step towards a broader understanding of the laws that govern the universe. And perhaps also towards broadening our view of the World. As our Latin ancestors would say, ‘per aspera ad astra’. My best wishes for a fruitful exploration.”

Netherlands: Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Robbert Dijkgraaf  

“The Netherlands has a long tradition in radio astronomy and contributed to the SKA radio telescope from the beginning – thirty years ago. Today marks an important milestone with the beginning of the construction on the two sites in Australia and South Africa. We are extremely proud to be a founding member of this remarkable prestigious research project that is at the very cutting edge of research. By investing in this important experiment, we are not only contributing to our understanding of the universe, but are also contributing to the greater benefit of society by stimulating global collaboration and innovation.”

Switzerland: State Secretary for Education, Research and Innovation, Martina Hirayama

“Switzerland would like to congratulate the host states on the start of construction of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory. As the host country of CERN, Switzerland is pleased to be part of this great intergovernmental, scientific and technological endeavour and is looking forward to the scientific community having access to the SKA. Great challenges lie ahead, but I trust that together we will be able to meet them. I am convinced that the SKA will allow us to achieve scientific breakthroughs, which will enable us to expand the boundaries of our knowledge.”

United Kingdom: Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, George Freeman

“This is an incredibly exciting and important moment, both for space science, but also for the increasingly commercial space sector, and for the communion of countries, nations working together to ensure that we build an open, integrated, safe space for science and the space economy going forward. So congratulations to all of those who’ve helped to make this possible. We are as the UK very proud to be one of the three host partners of the SKA Observatory and I’d like to congratulate colleagues in South Africa and Australia on achieving this latest milestone and helping us to bring one step closer operation of this really exciting observatory. After construction completion, the two complementary telescopes will be the ears on either side of the planet allowing us to listen to those murmurings from the deep universe, which are driving such excitement in both science and deeper our understanding of the universe in which we live and the origins of life. As the home of the control centre for the Observatory, the UK is helping lay the foundation for new galaxy-level discoveries through radio astronomy. Scientists, engineers and researchers across UK industry and academia are working to deliver the working brain if you like behind these two telescopes, the software systems which make space observations possible and allow us to make sense of what we see and hear. All of these efforts help to channel more funds, jobs, careers, opportunities and innovation, both into the UK economy, but just as importantly, into the global commercial space science and space economy.”


Observer countries

France: Director General for Research and Innovation – French Ministry of Higher Education and Research, Claire Giry

“Starting the construction of a very large infrastructure like SKA is a major milestone which is illustrative of the soundness of the scientific ambition, of the high quality of the project and of the excellent achievements of SKAO with the support of the radio astronomical community. France congratulates SKAO for this key step for the project and feels very enthusiastic with the commencement of the construction. This event gives an excellent opportunity to recall the commitment of France to contribute to the construction and scientific exploitation of SKA.”

South Korea: President of Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, Dr Young-Deuk Park

“The Korean astronomical community is greatly excited to see this construction commencement, which will be a historic moment for the SKA project. I would like to take this opportunity to deliver our gratitude from Korean astronomers to local communities around the telescope sites who allowed for the SKA telescopes to be built on their lands. Congratulations to all SKAO staff and SKAO committee members on another important milestone following the successful IGO transition and project launch. Your achievements are a result of hard work, determination and constant efforts which motivate observer countries including South Korea. As a long-time observer of the SKA project, which is building the world’s largest radio telescope through international cooperation, KASI hopes to be able to provide concrete ways to participate in this transformational science opportunity in the near future. I send my warmest congratulations on the construction commencement. I wish you continued success in the future endeavours for SKA.”


Spain: Minister for Science and Innovation, Diana Morant

“After so many years of study and design work, witnessing the commencement of the construction of the SKA is like seeing a dream come true. For Spain, our participation in SKA is a strategic investment of high priority, as it will be one of the most important scientific infrastructures in the world for decades. We are delighted to be part, with our partners, in this great adventure, to see our industry actively participating in the construction, and to guarantee our scientists access to an Observatory that will be the scene of great discoveries.”

About the SKAO

The SKAO, formally known as the SKA Observatory, is an intergovernmental organisation composed of Member States from five continents and headquartered in the UK. Its mission is to build and operate cutting-edge radio telescopes to transform our understanding of the Universe, and deliver benefits to society through global collaboration and innovation.

Its two telescopes, each composed of hundreds of dishes and thousands of antennas, will be constructed in South Africa and Australia and be the two most advanced radio telescopes on Earth. A later expansion is envisioned in both countries and other African partner countries.

Together with other state-of-the-art research facilities, the SKAO’s telescopes will explore the unknown frontiers of science and deepen our understanding of key processes, including the formation and evolution of galaxies, fundamental physics in extreme environments and the origins of life. Through the development of innovative technologies and its contribution to addressing societal challenges, the SKAO will play its part to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and deliver significant benefits across its membership and beyond.

The SKAO recognises and acknowledges the Indigenous peoples and cultures that have traditionally lived on the lands on which the SKAO facilities are located. In Australia, the SKAO acknowledges the Wajarri Yamaji as the Traditional Owners and native title holders of Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.

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Khulu Phasiwe
Head: Communication & Science Engagement
+27 72 263 8749


Buhle Khumalo
Chief Director: Science Communication
+27 82 990 1685



Gabby Russell
Communication Manager, Space, Astronomy and Scientific Computing
+612 9490 8002


Bob Eccles
Assistant Manager, Australian SKA Office
+61 02 6102 8403

The Commercialisation unit at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) recently hosted the exciting Karoo Innovation Challenge, in a bid to foster a culture of entrepreneurship and collaboration.

The Challenge is a subprogram of the Karoo Enterprise Development Program managed by the SARAO Commercialisation unit, generating innovative ideas that provide solutions to pressing societal issues. The event, which took place from Monday, 14 November to Friday, 18 November 2022 at the Sassa Hall in Carnarvon, saw 20 finalists from Carnarvon, Williston, Brandvlei, Van Wyksvlei and Prieska being given the opportunity to pitch their business ideas and stand a chance to receive grant funding.

The top three finalists walked away with cash prizes. The 1st prize winner, Patricia Hartnick, received a grant to the value of R30 000, the 1st runner-up, Lizahn Esterhuizen received a grant to the value of R20 000, and the 2nd runner-up, Stephanie de Wee, won a grant to the value of R10 000. The grants are intended to be applied towards advancing their businesses. In addition, all 20 finalists received pitch training from the National Youth Development Agency in collaboration with the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) and will receive incubation and business support starting from January 2023.

“I would like to thank the judges from the Department of Economic Development and Tourism and SEDA for volunteering their time to provide guidance and support to these young innovators. A big thank you to the guest judges who are pillars in their respective communities who will also act as mentors to these young entrepreneurs. A special thanks goes to the Northern Cape SMME Trust that donated R15 000 towards the Innovation Challenge, and lastly to SARAO that made this event a success,” said Apiwe Hotele, Senior Commercialisation Specialist for SARAO.
The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), a facility of the National Research Foundation, is responsible for managing all radio astronomy initiatives and facilities in South Africa, including the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Karoo, and the Geodesy and VLBI activities at the HartRAO facility.

Back row: MJ Maczali, Mayor of the Kareeberg Municipality, Judy Moalkwa, Assistant Director at the Department of Economic Development and Tourism, Ashley Slambee, SMME owner from Brandvlei, Hendrieka Royen, SMME owner from Williston, Aphiwe Hotele,Senior Commercialisation Specialist at SARAO, Stefanus Tieties, SMME owner from Van Wyksvlei, Wongama Ngonyama SEDA and Ursula Motsage from the Department of Economic Development and Training.
Front row: 1st runner-up Lizahn Esterhuizen, 1st prize winner Patricia Hartnick and 2nd runner-up Stephanie de Wee.

More than 40 participants from 8 African countries attended the in-person part of the Digital Transformation Programme – Technological Skills for Industry 4.0 in Cape Town, South Africa from 7 to 11 November 2022. A further 20 participants attended the workshop online.

More than 40 participants from 8 African countries participated in the DigiSkills Afria workshop held in Cape Town between 7 and 11 November 2022. Photo credit: SARAO

The Digital Transformation programme, developed by Ireland-based InnoGlobal, is an adaptation of the Master’s degree programme on Digital Transformation offered through InnoGlobal’s higher education institute, InnoPharma Education. This year’s programme was run as a pilot project, called DigiSkills Africa, with funding for the in-person workshop provided by the UK Newton Fund through the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) Big Data project. SARAO, a delivery partner of the UK-South Africa Newton Fund through the DARA and DARA Big Data projects, led the local hosting and implementation of the course with the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) South Africa.

The programme focused on enhancing participants’ knowledge, skills and competencies associated with the concepts of the smart factory and the evolution of life science manufacturing from a traditional reactive process to the emergence of Industry 4.0 and Pharma 4.0. Learners researched the current and future trends in life science manufacturing; the application and impact of greater use of technology, data analysis and visualisation on current performance; the impact on organisations and their levels of maturity to complete such transformations as well as ethical and corporate social responsibilities associated with such changes.

The one-week workshop was preceded by various online courses and lectures with the in-person workshop offering the participants the opportunity to learn more and network with their fellow participants and lecturers. At the workshop participants were exposed to Pharma product development, as well as data in Pharma product development, the role of data in the smart factory and digital technologies in Pharma, food processing and manufacturing. Participants were also exposed to concepts for Industry 4.0 and the future of high-tech manufacturing through Industry 5.0.

The in-person workshop included a range of guest speakers from research organisations such as the South African Medical Research Council and SARAO, covering topics on the Precision Medicine agenda for South Africa, SARAO’s role in the National Ventilator Project and the skills needs for South Africa to develop human capacity and leadership in data driven radio astronomy. This was complemented by guest speakers from the private sector represented by ASPEN Pharmacare, who presented the pharmaceutical landscape in South Africa that includes local facilities for the production of pharmaceuticals and skills needed in the sector. In addition, the global Multinational company, DHL, gave a contribution on the role of digital tools in transforming their supply chain in the last decade. The high-level skills agenda for South Africa and a country approach to skills was presented by a representative of the Department of Science and Innovation.

Ireland’s Ambassador to South Africa, Her Excellency Fionnuala Gilsenan, welcomed the participants to the workshop on 9 November 2022, drawing similarities between South Africa and Ireland society.

At the networking event held on 10 November 2022 Kagiso Masete, Deputy Director: Bilateral Relations – Europe and Gulf States at the Department of Science and Innovation noted: “The Department is proud to be associated with this programme which we believe will have a significant impact on the future career prospects of the participants. We are very pleased to see the growth of our partnership with Ireland and the DARA programme and are committed to future programmes like this which look to enhance the skills of graduates across Africa.”

Paul Deane, Trade, Education and Skills Counsellor at the Embassy of Ireland said: “This programme is an example of how we can leverage Irish expertise in technology to help generate African solutions to African problems. Programmes such as these helps to identify future leaders in African countries that can be equipped with the relevant skills to aid their home countries.”

Dr Amelia Marutle, Newton Fund Country Manager for South Africa noted: “Programmes such as these are critical in order to train and produce a new generation of data scientists and technicians as the move to digital technologies in Africa will lead to a more equitable future for all.” She also rallied the participants to stay networked and focused on taking advantage of all the opportunities available to them to grow their careers. “Remember you are all digital transformation ambassadors and your skills and talent are invaluable for the digitalisation of Africa,” said Marutle.

Dr Ian Jones, Founder and CEO of the InnoPharma Group, thanked the partners for making the programme possible. “A great start is half the work. I encourage you all to tell other people what you know and I look forward to scaling the programme and doing it again.”

“It is truly remarkable to see the difference in confidence levels of participants from the beginning and at the end of this workshop,” says Dr Bonita de Swardt, Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for Human Capital Development at SARAO. “Many of the participants are either unemployed graduates, or reaching the end of their degree with some graduates not sure how to transition to a new job role. This programme has given them more than the technical knowledge on how digitization is changing work environments. I would like to thank all the partners for their hard work over the past few months in bringing the first DigiSkills Africa programme to the continent,” De Swardt continued.

Participants will now take part in post-workshop sessions which will include live online lecturing, virtual and digital labs and career mentorship which will continue into early next year.

The DigiSkills Africa workshop focused on enhancing participants’ knowledge, skills and competencies associated with the concepts of the smart factory and the evolution of life science manufacturing from a traditional reactive process to the emergence of Industry 4.0 and Pharma 4.0. Photo credit: SARAO

More about the partners of this initiative

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO)

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), a facility of the National Research Foundation, is responsible for managing all radio astronomy initiatives and facilities in South Africa, including the MeerKAT Radio Telescope in the Karoo, and the Geodesy and VLBI activities at the HartRAO facility. SARAO also coordinates the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) for the eight SKA partner countries in Africa, as well as South Africa’s contribution to the infrastructure and engineering planning for the Square Kilometre Array Radio Telescope. To maximise the return on South Africa’s investment in radio astronomy, SARAO is managing programmes to create capacity in radio astronomy science and engineering research, and the technical capacity required to support site operations.

Website: https://www.sarao.ac.za

Newton Fund and DARA Big Data

This initiative is funded by the UK-South Africa Newton Fund partnership under the DARA Big Data project. DARA Big Data is a human capacity development intervention with the goal of equipping African countries forming part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) partnership with the skills needed for data-driven science and big data technologies. The project builds on the diverse set of skills required for hosting of cutting-edge radio astronomy infrastructure through the SKA and African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN), with a focus on the translation of skills for an even broader impact on Africa’s data-driven development.

More information on the Newton Fund and DARA Big Data can be found here:

Website: https://www.newton-gcrf.org

Website: https://www.darabigdata.com

AIMS South Africa

The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) is Africa’s first network of centres of excellence in mathematical sciences. It enables the continent’s youth to shape the continent’s future through Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education, training Africa’s next generation of leaders. AIMS South Africa is one of the centres of excellence for training, research and public engagement in Cape Town, South Africa. AIMS South Africa was established in 2003 as a partnership project of: Cambridge University, the University of Cape Town, Oxford University, the University of Paris Sud XI, Stellenbosch University, and the University of the Western Cape.

Website: https://aims.ac.za

InnoGlobal and InnoPharma Education

InnoGlobal, based in Dublin, Ireland but thinking and operating globally, have an excellent track record in development, co-ordination and deployment of skills initiatives across multiple industries and continents. The company is uniquely qualified to facilitate digital and green transformations for enterprises and governments, with a focus on building the knowledge and culture that enable successful implementation and outcomes for industries, nations and most importantly – people.

InnoGlobal, through its higher education institute, InnoPharma Education, operates at the forefront of skills and learning in high-tech manufacturing, advancing skills and capabilities across the pharmaceutical, medtech and food science industries. Established in 2009, InnoPharma Education works with its education partners to develop and deliver industry-focused and accredited qualifications to meet the needs of Ireland’s growing STEM sectors. Specifically designed for those who wish to change or advance their career in the pharmaceutical, medical device or food sectors, its courses upskill and equip people from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully secure promising career opportunities in these fast-growing sectors.

InnoGlobal’s sister company Innopharma Technology designs and develops Pharma 4.0 data and technology solutions to help development and manufacturing teams improve their processes and deliver better outcomes in drug manufacturing. This research and insight ensure real world relevance of InnoPharma Education’s programmes – both at undergraduate and postgraduate level.


For more information contact:

Dr Bonita de Swardt

SARAO Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for Human Capital Development

Email: bonita@sarao.ac.za

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), in collaboration with the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), is celebrating the annual National Science Week through a road show in the Northern Cape this week.

National Science Week (NSW), held nationwide from 1 to 6 August 2022, is held under the theme Celebrating the role of basic sciences in the modern world and is aimed at exhibiting and communicating awareness in science.

NSW is an initiative of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), a countrywide celebration of science connecting various stakeholders and role players conducting science-based activities during the week, an annual celebration of the role and value of science and technology in people’s daily lives.

The SARAO Science Engagement team is visiting the towns of Williston, Van Wyksvlei, Brandvlei and Carnarvon this week, engaging with learners in a range of activities including career opportunities, the Square Kilometre Array, a rocket launching competition and night-time sky viewing.

Dr Anton Binneman, SARAO Communications and Science Engagement Manager, interacts with learners during National Science Week.

While the rest of South Africa commemorated Youth Day on 16 June, SARAO, in conjunction with the Siyafunda Community Technology Centre and the Kareeberg Local Municipality, launched its community computer centre in Carnarvon.

This collaboration between the two organisations and the local Kareeberg Municipality will see computer skills training and education transfer be given to the local Carnarvon community.

The Siyafunda Community Technology Center was launched on Youth Day, 16 June 2022. The Center is established through a long-standing collaboration between SARAO, Siyafunda and Kareeberg Municipality. Pictured above: the Mayor of the Kareeberg Municipality, Monray MacZali and Siyafunda facilitator Gillian Maritz reveal the plaque.

The Siyafunda Lab, as the facility is known, is one of several initiatives to provide communities with information, communication technologies or ICTs where locals can access information, apply for jobs and conduct research.

SARAO has previously provided computer labs at several schools surrounding the SKA site, as well as internet connectivity that is currently being expanded. In this regard, the Lab is aimed at further expanding these digital technology platforms that will in turn support community, economic, educational, and social development.

This initiative aims to reduce isolation, bridge the digital divide, promote health issues, create economic opportunities, and reach out to youth. The collaboration forms part of SARAO’s ongoing efforts to facilitate positive socio-economic impact in the towns in MeerKAT and the SKA’s impact area, which includes Carnarvon, Williston, Brandvlei and Van Wyksvlei.

To support community members and SMMEs, a facilitator and trainer have been appointed from within the local community to provide training to all users of the facility on digital and other skills they may require.

SARAO Stakeholder Manager Nomfundo Makhubo says: “We hope that this computer centre will go a long way in alleviating the shortfalls experienced by locals in the town of Carnarvon. We would like to thank all parties involved, particularly Siyafunda and Kareeberg Local Municipality for their full support to the centre”.

Makhubo added that this is one example of how collaboration can lead to greater community benefit.

The SARAO Stakeholder Relations unit and staff members from various other units participated in and supported a Sports Tournament in collaboration with Bietjie Begin, a local non-government organisation from Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

The Sports Tournament was held on Monday, 2 May 2022 and drew more than 750 participating members of the surrounding communities of Carnarvon, Van Wyksvlei, De Aar, Loxton and Victoria West. Local stakeholder groups from the Department of Health, the local retirement facility, the Department of Justice and the local SAPS also joined in the fun.

The SARAO Stakeholder Relations unit and staff members from various other units participated in and supported a Sports Tournament in collaboration with Bietjie Begin, a local non-government organisation from Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

Fun and games were played with activities such as netball, soccer, rugby, tug-of-war and egg-on-a-spoon. Netball teams of all ages competed for the Carnarvon Netball Cup. The SARAO team came in second place in the netball tournament, having lost to the Department of Health’s team by only one point.

The last games of the day were rugby matches between De Aar, Van Wyksvlei and Carnarvon. The first game between De Aar and Van Wyksvlei saw the latter winning a spot in the final to take on the Carnarvons Young Lions. In the end Van Wyksvlei continued their winning streak and gained the upper hand over the Carnarvon Young Lions, and was crowned the rugby champions of the day.

Other activities included fun and games for children like jumping castles, old croc rugby games and a braai.

SARAO staff members came out in their numbers to volunteer and support the tournament. They spent the day not only winning on the field, but assisting with food, braaing and ensuring that the event was fun for the entire community. Definitely a day filled with sportsmanship, enthusiasm and memories to cherish!