SKA builders warn on possible clashes with ‘frackers’

The satellite dishes that make up the SKA KAT radio telescope. Picture Credit: Gallo Images
The satellite dishes that make up the SKA KAT radio telescope. Picture Credit: Gallo Images

The builders of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope in the Northern Cape hope to co-exist with shale gas prospectors, but if needs be will invoke new astronomy laws to protect their interests, MPs heard on Wednesday.

"We're looking for a co-existence with fracking," science and technology department chief director for astronomy Val Munsami told Parliament's science and technology portfolio committee.

Construction on phase one of the SKA -- which on completion will be the world's biggest radio telescope -- is set to start in 2018, centred on a site about 90km north-west of Carnarvon.

Work is currently under way there to build a precursor telescope, known as MeerKAT, which comprises 64 antenna dishes. These will eventually be incorporated into the SKA.

An area hundreds of kilometres across -- protected in terms of radio interference and light pollution, and known as the Karoo Central Astronomy Advantage Area -- has been declared around the site.

Munsami said his department would first seek to co-exist peacefully with so-called frackers drilling for shale gas.

"But we're also mindful that there might be instances where we will collide."

If this happened, the department would look to provisions of the 2007 Astronomy Geographic Advantage (AGA) Act for protection.

"This is why we have the AGA Act, which preserves and protects the astronomy facilities and investments that we have made so far."

Members of his department were currently working closely with their counterparts in mineral resources.

"In fact, we form part of the monitoring committee for fracking. And so we look [after] the astronomy interest in that [forum].

"And so what's very important is that as the exploitation, exploration licences are being dished out, we have to be mindful of what the requirements are for the astronomy."

Munsami said the existence of "buffer zones" around the astronomy facilities in the Northern Cape had to be taken into account when it came to fracking licences.

"And so what's very important is that there must be concurrence... from the [science and technology] minister around any licences for exploitation and exploration around fracking," he said.