After the jubilation of being chosen as the primary country hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, South Africa is wasting no time putting in place the regulatory framework for the project.

"The most important regulatory aspect is creating radio-quiet zones so that radio waves can be received from space without interference," says Amanda Armstrong, one of two directors at Werksmans Attorneys who have worked on the SKA project since its inception nine years ago.

Having assisted the Department of Science and Technology to prepare the legal aspects of South Africa's bid to host the SKA, she and her colleague, Wendy Rosenberg, are now creating the regulatory framework for the telescope.

"Nothing quite like this has been done before.  The SKA is a completely different telescope from anything the world has seen to date," says Armstrong.

Apart from being the biggest telescope yet, what makes the SKA so unique is that it will rely on radio waves received by hundreds of receivers/arrays dotted across its different sites. The data received will then be consolidated and made available to astronomers and other scientists all over the world through fibre optic links.

"Radio-quiet zones will be critical for the effective functioning of the telescope and its receivers," Armstrong says. "Any interference could fundamentally affect the working of the telescope and its ability to receive waves coming from other planets and stars."

Radio-quiet zones and Constitutional rights

One of the most important aspects of creating the regulatory framework, which falls under the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act of 2007, is to ensure that radio-quiet zones are achieved within the ambit of the South African Constitution.

"Care must be taken to comply with the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, and the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act," Armstrong says.

The question of rights comes into play when there are people living or working in the areas demarcated for the SKA receivers, which will be primarily located at sites around Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

"The land which will be the core area is where the most important combination of receivers will be located and where radio-quiet conditions will be most critical," says Armstrong.  The state bought this land some time ago in preparation for the SKA project.

Although the core area is essentially unoccupied, the area surrounding it (known as the central areas) is populated, albeit not densely, and so is the area around that (called the co-ordinating area).

"The central area, which we are addressing now, will not be as strictly regulated as the core area, but it is still extremely important to minimise radio wave interference," Armstrong says. "It will be important to ensure that the rights of land-users and owners in that area are taken into account. With this in mind, all interested parties will be invited to make representations."

Further public consultations will take place down the line when the time comes to draft the regulations for the co-ordinating area – the least regulated of the three areas.

Commenting on the role of the Werksmans' team in helping to pave the way for the SKA telescope, Armstrong says. "It is amazing to be part of a project that will benefit astronomers and scientists all over the world and hopefully lead to quantum-leap discoveries in space."

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