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Olivia’s Winning Science Essay

Olivia’s Winning Science Essay

We are extremely proud of Olivia Gardy, a Grade 9 student at Oakhill, who has won the Royal Society of South Africa Science Essay Competition.  Not only has Olivia won this prestigious prize, but her essay was judged as one of the two best overall and as such will be published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of SA — a respected scientific journal.  This is a significant achievement and the whole Oakhill community congratulates her!

Olivia’s winning essay is below together with the letter from the Royal Society of SA…


Since the dawn of man, people have wondered about the planets, the stars, the galaxies and the Universe itself.  Telescopes were invented and with each new invention, things have been revealed that we had not even imagined.

With astronomy we can see back in time because the light waves from stars or galaxies far away, take time to travel through space to our telescopes, so we see them as they were a very long time ago. Now astronomers want to construct the most powerful telescope ever, which will allow them to see back to before the first stars and galaxies formed. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be a radio telescope, therefore, it will make pictures from radio waves, instead of seeing light waves. The SKA is a universal collaboration of 19 countries led by a jointly funded SKA Program Development Office and an international steering committee. All activities are supported by international working groups that are studying the many specific issues needed to make the SKA a reality. The universal SKA collaboration promises to revolutionise science by answering some of the most fundamental questions that remain about the origin, nature and evolution of the universe.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a radio telescope that is currently in development. It will have a total collecting area of around one square kilometre and will operate over a wide range of frequencies of about 3 000 receptors linked together. It will have 50 times the sensitivity and 10 000 times the survey speed of the best current-day radio telescopes and a life-span of at least 50 years. It will be continuously upgradeable as computer power increases.

With universal investments supporting the project and astronomers and engineers around the world already working on its design, construction on the SKA is planned to start around 2016. The first astronomical observations are expected to take place in 2019 and the telescope should be fully functional by 2024.

The budget for building the SKA is €1.5 billion and it will cost about €150 million per year to operate. The SKA will be constructed and funded by a consortium, which at present consists of sixteen countries.

The SKA will be built in the southern hemisphere, due to the fact that here the view of our galaxy and the Milky Way is best and radio interference is least. Australia and South Africa have been picked as possible sites. South Africa has suggested the Karoo in the Northern Cape as the core site. There are now scientists comparing the radio interference at both sites, as well as the cost of building and operating the telescope in Africa and Australia. The African Union Heads of State fully support the African bid and the decision of where to site the SKA will be taken in 2012.

The SKA will require extremely high performance central computing engines and long-haul links with a greater capacity (about 250 times more) than the total current global Internet traffic. It is expected that the SKA will collect more data in a week than  humanity has collected in its entire history. It will be able to examine the sky more than ten thousand times faster than ever before. With receiving stations extending out to a distance of 3,000 km from the concentrated central core, it will continue radio astronomy’s tradition of supplying extremely high resolution images.

In my opinion, the Square Kilometre Array telescope is justified for many reasons. Firstly, as mentioned previously, the SKA is planning to revolutionise science by answering some of the most fundamental questions that remain about the origin, nature and evolution of the universe.

There is a very strong case for building the SKA because there is such a large amount about the universe that we yet don’t know and the telescope will most likely be noticed and renowned for discoveries that we can’t even imagine. South Africa has an extraordinary advantage for observing the universe – its geographical position gives extensive coverage of the astronomically rich southern sky and is the best location to study our own Milky Way galaxy. This is because the Karoo semi-desert has very low population density and thus has very low levels of radio frequency interference and very little light pollution. In addition to being a perfect location, the Karoo has a good basic road infrastructure, electrical grid power and optical fibre communication networks. South Africa is doing its best to bring this mega science instrument to this continent.

By looking back in time around 13.7 billion years to the “dark ages” of the universe, the SKA, with its sensitivity, will be able to provide detailed pictures of the cosmic web of neutral gas to reveal how the very first black holes and stars were formed.

It will follow young galaxies to investigate the increasing rate of expansion of the universe, therefore helping to identify the nature of dark energy, whether dark energy is a vacuum energy or something more exotic, perhaps providing proof of genuinely new physics or extra dimensions. They will do this by using the SKA to track how hydrogen flows in and out of galaxies and it will also be able to monitor how gas is substituted or lost as groups and clusters of galaxies interact with each other. With this data the SKA will measure the geometry of the Universe, and thereby do the tests to identify the nature of dark energy.

By measuring the radio emissions of millions of distant galaxies, the SKA will create three-dimensional galactic maps, which will allow us to study the nature of cosmic magnets throughout the universe and reveal their role in its evolution.

It will even be able to detect extremely weak extra-terrestrial signals and may locate other planets capable of supporting life – the Earth’s radio radiation is created by humans, by our TV transmitters, radars, and other transmissions. Detection of false transmissions from a planet around another star would be the most compelling evidence of life on another planet and a profound moment for all of humanity. While searches for extraterrestrial transmission have taken place before, the SKA sensitivity will allow for the first time signals to be detected from nearby stars that are no stronger than those generated by our own 21st century TVs and radars.

Astrobiologists (someone who studies the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, in space, not earth)  will use the SKA to search for amino acids, the foundations of life, by identifying spectral lines at specific frequencies. The SKA will also study the nature of gravity and challenge the theory of general relativity. Using pulsars, the SKA will perform as an enormous gravitational wave detector, discovering and studying space-time ripples of the collapsed spinning cores of dead stars left over from the early Universe from exotic phenomena like cosmic strings or merging super-massive black holes.

In addition to being able to answer fundamental science questions, the SKA will also stimulate unprecedented advances in data processing and storage, high-performance computing and innovative industrial manufacturing techniques. It will drive innovation in ICT (Information and Communication Technology), wireless communication, sensor technology, renewable energy and other many other technologies. Astronomy and astronomers always need the latest and most sensitive technologies. This will require supercomputers functioning at exaflop speeds – about a thousand times faster than today’s most top-of-the-range supercomputers. The technology being developed for SKA is cutting-edge and the project is creating a large group of young scientists and engineers with world-class expertise in the technologies because it is something entirely new and extremely ambitious.

Eight other African countries have partnered with South Africa in its bid to bring the SKA to Africa. By winning this bid, Africa will be put on the world stage of science and will ensure a sustained boost for expertise and infrastructure development across the continent.

The SKA South Africa team has also created positive partnerships with South African industries, universities and a vast majority of the world’s leading research institutions.

South Africa is currently constructing the Karoo Array Telescope, or MeerKAT, a mid-frequency ‘pathfinder’ to the SKA, alongside the future SKA core site. The first 7 dishes (KAT-7) out of 64 are complete and have already produced its first pictures. The Australians are also building a precursor instrument, called ASKAP (Australian SKA Pathfinder).

The development of major astronomy facilities such as the MeerKAT and SKA can become a powerful driver of socio economic development in the region.  It will attract young people toward science and engineering and will train a new generation of highly qualified scientists, technicians and professionals.  Projects like the MeerKAT and the SKA can bring in the best young people in Africa and contribute to limiting and reversing the brain drain in science and technology.  Increasing Africa’s human resources in science and technology will allow South Africa and Africa to play an increasingly important role in the global knowledge and technology economy.

Since 2005, 215 grants for studies in astronomy and engineering have been awarded from undergraduate to post-doctoral level, while also investing in training programmes for technicians.  A special effort is made to attract women and black students to these fields through the undergraduate programme. As a result of the SKA project, astronomy courses are being taught in Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius and are soon to start in other countries.

To enable the construction of the SKA, many tasks, improvements and advances must be put into place in the country in which it will be hosted and for this to happen, a large amount of labour is required. This will create many jobs and will develop the country by having less unemployed people and improving and creating more advanced technology. All these factors will bring huge amounts of money into that country.

In order to produce and enable the fields required for the construction of the SKA, the collaboration and the countries involved in the SKA design and construction, will be forced to develop and advance their technologies and create improved expertise and infrastructure development. This will require new extraordinary levels of technology, which is very positive for the development and education in the country hosting the SKA and it will also benefit students going into science fields.

Although the SKA telescope may be an extraordinary project, there are reasons that one could argue why this project is not justified. One reason being the fact that a huge amount of money is being invested in this project while a large part of the developing world is living in poverty with no funds to supply them with adequate food, safe drinking water, housing, health care, education and other basic resources. The money used in this project could rather be used to raise the standard of living and quality of life for these people.

Another reason against the project is that it requires a vast amount of land. The concentrated central core of the SKA alone covers a diameter of about 200km which makes an area of approximately 3146km squared. This area has to be the most electrically neutral area in the whole of South Africa so that there is no radio interference; this means that there can be no development or housing in this area, which can potentially be a problem with all the overcrowding and lack of housing in the country.

Looking at all aspects of the project, I would say that the SKA is certainly justified, rather than not, because there are far more pro’s than con’s and the amount of income received from the all the pro’s can easily outweigh the con’s. The SKA telescope project is one of the most ambitious missions humans have ever attempted and if everything works out according to plan, the telescope will be able to give us unimaginable results and it will be an extremely positive asset for humankind.

(Words: 1 972)

Olivia Gardy

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