Square Kilometre Array and Aviation – More Questions than Answers

Many South Africans are very excited about the radio astronomy, Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project. SKA marketing strategies and the SKA website present a convincing and impressive picture of SKA South Africa. But, and it’s a big but, how will it effect aviation in the area?

The current SKA site in the Karoo consists of two farms (Losberg and Meysdam) and covers 13,406 ha. A number of pathfinder and precursor radio telescope dishes have been already been erected anyone that has flown from Johannesburg to Cape Town is bound to have noticed them right on the flightpath.

The Kat-7 project, a test bed of seven dishes, was completed years ago. The MeerKAT project will eventually comprise of 64 dishes, a technology demonstrator for South Africa's bid to host the Square Kilometre Array, is under construction and will form part of SKA phase 1. MeerKat is still far form completion and has suffered many delays.

SKA phase 1 does not only consist of the above mentioned core area, but also includes three long arm-like spiralling corridors. Along these corridors additional satellite dishes are to be constructed. Along these spirals’ restrictions will be imposed to protect radio astronomy for up to 11 km on either side of the spirals, totalling corridors of 22 km (or more in places) in width.

These restrictions reduce or prohibit the generation of power via certain generators, wind chargers and solar panels. Electric fencing, spark plugs (petrol driven vehicles included),flying an aeroplane, constructing roads and houses, broadcasting radio signals, operating microwaves, arc welding and the use of certain machines will be restricted or prohibited. Even appliances like TV`s, decoders, stoves, fridges, washing machines, electric geysers, alarm systems, remote controls, laptops, printers, digital cameras, lathes, trucks and bulldozers or graders will be restricted. Cell phones are banned outright in the regulated zones. A SKA official, Mr Adrian Tiplady, confirmed that signals have been "modified" in the past, and will continue to be "modified" to protect radio astronomy. The scientific term of "modification" in practical terms results in the loss of mobile communication systems. Only radio frequencies below 100 Mhz, and above 25.5 Ghz will be tolerated. Therefore, the use designated aviation frequencies in the general vicinity will be band.

Radio frequency restrictions and aviation laws are obviously contradictory concepts. Almost all flights to and from Cape Town have always flown over the Northern Cape as Cape Town is geographically at the southern tip of Africa. Therefore, the Karoo was traditionally not a radio quiet or radio protected area. Obviously, the availability of radio frequencies is paramount to aviation safety with regard to radar, navigation and radio communications. These rights were stipulated in the Chicago Convention of 1944 and most nations are signatory to this agreement, including South Africa. Should flights to and from Cape Town be re-routed to protect astronomy within the Karoo? How much will this cost travellers? How would this affect the carbon footprint of air travel? SKA articles suggest that the Karoo is "beautifully radio quiet and ideal for radio astronomy". This is not so, with national and international flights routes going over the Central Karoo area and the Northern Cape. Besides most rural towns and many farms have their own airstrips, indicating recreational aviation and emergencies services aviation activity.

On 15 December 2017, the Minister of Science and Technology published the final regulations on the protection of the declared KCAAAs. On 5 September 2018, the Minister published a notice determining the effective date of the KCAAA regulations to be 15 December 2018.

The Regulations stipulate the following:

1. Schedule A, sub -regulation 3(2): As of 15 December 2019 (one year from the effective date of the Regulations), no operator may use the radio frequency spectrum between 100 MHz and 25.5 GHz, or conduct radio transmissions within that portion of the spectrum, within the Karoo Central Astronomy Advantage Areas unless a permit to do so has been issued.

2. Schedule B, sub -regulations 4(1) and (2):

Before any such permit can be issued, a compliance assessment of each radio transmission concerned must be conducted, either by the management authority or by a person employed or contracted by the applicant who is competent to conduct such assessments.

3. Schedule B, sub -regulation 4(3):

The assessment must determine whether the radio transmissions comply with the requirements of radio frequency interference protection at the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Virtual Centre, with the prohibition of saturation level interference, and with all other applicable regulations.

How the Department of Science and Technology will enforce the above regulations with regard to aviation is very unclear, but it must be noted that the prescribed fine for contravention of this act is R200000-00 per incident. We will wait with baited breath to see how this is resolved.

References: Save the Karoo

Government Gazette

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