The COP Venture\’s Project Initiation Team for the SKA MeerKAT Project. Article Image by OptiPower.
This article first appeared on Engineering News. Written by Rebecca Campbell. Edited by Johan Brink (OptiPower) for this publication.

Contractors Concor in partnership with OptiPower, have been awarded the R202 million infrastructure project for the structural foundations and associated infrastructure of 24 dishes to the sixty-four dish MeerKAT radio telescope.

South African contractor Concor, in partnership with OptiPower, has been awarded a R212-million contract for the structural foundations and associated infrastructure for 24 additional dishes for South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope array. MeerKAT currently has 64 dishes. The partners have also been contracted to design another 109 dish foundations and associated infrastructure. The project is currently in the design stage, with construction due to start in June.

MeerKAT is situated in a remote part of the Karoo region, in the Northern Cape province. A fully functional instrument in its own right, it is also a precursor to the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope and will, in due course, be integrated into it. (The SKA will be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia and these contracts may, in reality, be the first construction contracts for the South African-based SKA itself.)

Concor will be responsible for the structural concrete foundations for the 24 new dishes, as well as the construction of 40 km of gravel access roads and four gatehouses. The company will also have to erect a construction camp capable of accommodating about 250 people, complete with security fencing, water storage, sewage and wastewater treatment facilities and settling ponds. Concor will also be building four guardhouses, which will be powered by solar energy.

OptiPower will carry out the electrification of the works and the provision of fibre connectivity to the new installation with approximately 60 km of trenching, electrical power cables, fibre ducting and fibre cables required. The Concor-OptiPower venture (COP) will also design a further 109 satellite foundations, with the associated roads, power and fibre installation.

The COP Venture\’s Project Initiation Team during an initial site visit, assessing current MeerKAT infrastructure (Image Credits: OptiPower)

Radio Frequency Interference an important mitigating factor

A key constraint of this current project is the need to limit any radio frequency interference (RFI) in the vicinity of the MeerKAT telescope array,” highlighted Concor contracts director Joe Nell. “This is due to the highly sensitive nature of the radio telescope equipment, which is designed to detect extremely weak radio signals from astrophysical sources.

RFI signals are given off by cellphones, vehicle equipment and domestic appliances like microwave ovens. These can cause interference with the reception of weak radio waves from far distant galaxies and other astronomical and astrophysical phenomena. In extreme cases, they could also damage the array’s dish antennas.

Says Roy van Leeve, Concor Site Agent, just about every model of construction vehicle built within the last decade is likely to include telematics, which presents a potential RFI risk in this project. The construction camp itself also needs to be located a suitable distance from the MeerKAT site to avoid RFI.

As a consequence, the construction camp will be located some 15 km away from the MeerKAT instrument. The COP Venture\’s main construction office will be set up at Carnarvon, the nearest town to the MeerKAT, some 100 km from the radio telescope. As the time approaches to start the work, a specialised insulated RFI container will be set up at the site, which will enable the contractors to communicate and to operate some electronic equipment, without interfering with the telescope.

Every vehicle and piece of equipment used by the partner companies will have to be checked for RFI emissions and certified, before being allowed on site. “We have employed an RFI expert to test our equipment and submit the necessary data to the client,” reported Concor site agent Roy van Leeve. “After careful analysis of this data, we will be granted a permit for that particular item of machinery or advised what steps need to be taken before machinery can be passed for use on site.

The COP Venture partners will make use of SMME\’s located in the local Kareeberg municipal area. This includes the towns of Brandvlei, Loxton, Vanwyksvlei and Williston, as well as Carnarvon.