Local impact study of HERA telescope shows direct benefits of radio astronomy infrastructure in South Africa’s Northern Cape province

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) has undertaken a local impact study of South Africa’s hosting of the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA). The HERA telescope is an array of 350 antennas situated next to the MeerKAT radio telescope on the site that hosts the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in the Northern Cape province.

HERA is a US-led project that forms part of a large international collaboration representative of institutions from Europe, South Africa, the UK and US. The goal of HERA is to observe how the first structures formed in the very early stages of the Universe, as the first stars and galaxies lit up space.

Construction of HERA began in 2015, with the full array reaching completion in 2021. SARAO managed the construction of the infrastructure in close collaboration with US institutions. Currently, the instrument is undergoing commissioning and validation of its data.

The Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array in the Northern Cape. Image credit: SARAO

The aim of the HERA impact study is to understand the direct investment and benefits of co-hosted radio astronomy infrastructure to the local economy in South Africa, at both the national and provincial level. More broadly, the impact study of HERA provides one example of direct benefits of the country’s hosting of smaller telescopes, instruments and experiments on local astronomy sites.

The report on the local impact study focuses on three main areas of assessment: the economic benefits of hosting HERA in South Africa; a detailed assessment of the country’s investment into Human Capacity Development (HCD); and a socio-economic impact assessment of HERA focusing on local employment created through the hosting of the instrument in the Northern Cape. The findings from the HERA impact study indicate that South Africa received substantial direct foreign investment for construction of the infrastructure. Most of the investment towards infrastructure was made to the Northern Cape, with materials sourced from local suppliers during construction of the infrastructure. At a regional level, it was found that Carnarvon benefitted most from the investment when compared to other towns in the province. The findings demonstrate how international investment into astronomy research infrastructure can stimulate economic development to benefit the region closest to the infrastructure.

“With a creative approach and some careful considerations, the smaller, less technically stringent projects can be successfully executed (parts manufactured and supplied, labour sourced and managed) all using the resources available in the Northern Cape,” adds Ziyaad Halday, SARAO Project Manager for HERA. He further adds: “This strategy facilitates employment and spending in sectors that are not the province’s main financial drivers, such as mining and agriculture.”

South Africa, through SARAO, has contributed significantly to the HERA collaboration by providing the human resources required for managing the project locally, and employing the workers needed for building, operating, and maintaining the infrastructure. Over the course of seven years, the construction of HERA on the telescope site has created employment for 24 individuals who were mostly recruited from Carnarvon. The co-hosting of astronomy infrastructure such as HERA can have additional benefits for local communities through employment opportunities that arise from construction of the instrument to the maintenance needed following the construction phase.

Part of the team of local artisans from the town of Carnarvon who helped build the HERA telescope, situated next to MeerKAT in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Image courtesy of Scott Dynes.

“South Africa has become a destination of choice for the hosting of international astronomy infrastructure. This includes smaller astronomy telescopes, instruments and experiments in astronomy that can be easily plugged into the existing infrastructure on operational sites,” says Dr Bonita de Swardt, SARAO Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for HCD and author of the report. She adds: “HERA represents only one of these co-hosted instruments for an international collaboration of scientists. The impact study shows how South Africa can benefit from smaller scale, co-hosted instrumentation through business development to the employment it can create for people living in some of the most impoverished and rural geographical areas in the country.”

On a national level, the impact study found that there is growing participation of South African researchers in the HERA collaboration. This was mainly a result of continuous financial support towards masters and doctoral scholarships, in conjunction with the award of postdoctoral research fellowships supported by SARAO’s HCD Programme and collaborating universities. These initiatives were supported throughout the construction of HERA, which has led to increased participation of researchers based at local universities in the collaboration, ensuring South Africa’s representation in world-class research conducted with this instrument.

View the full report here.


HERA – The Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array

The Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA) is a radio telescope dedicated to observing large scale structure during and prior to the epoch of reionization. HERA is a project of the US National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and several international member institutions (http://reionization.org/team). It is a second generation instrument which combines efforts and lessons learned from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) and the Donald C. Backer Precision Array for Probing the Epoch of Reionization (PAPER). The array is a large grid of 14 metre diameter non-tracking dishes packed into a hexagonal grid 300m across. This substantial collecting area increase gives an order of magnitude more sensitivity than first generation instruments and is capable of robust statistical characterization and has the sensitivity to enable first images of large scale HI (neutral hydrogen) structure.

Website: https://reionization.org

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

United States of America National Science Foundation (NSF)

HERA is funded in part by the US NSF, of which the task is to identify and fund work at the frontiers of science and engineering.  It keeps close track of research around the United States and the world, maintaining constant contact with the research community to identify ever-moving horizons of inquiry, monitoring which areas are most likely to result in spectacular progress and choosing the most promising people to conduct the research.

Website: https://www.nsf.gov/

 Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

This research is funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through grant GBMF5215 to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The recent support provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is extending HERA’s capabilities to lower frequencies, which makes possible measurement of the very first stars, even before the Epoch of Reionization.

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