Light Pollution

Deep in the Karoo, about 90 kilometres from the little town of Carnarvon, part of the world’s most powerful telescope is in the process of being built. This is the SKA radio telescope whose thousands of dishes will have a total collecting area of one square kilometre – hence the name, Square Kilometre Array. The project is an international effort involving about 100 organisations, from 20 countries, all participating in the design and development of the SKA.1

The SKA boasts some impressive features. It is not a normal ocular telescope. It picks up, and amplifies radio waves from outer space before converting the data into digital images. It will2 generate enough raw data, every day, to fill 15 million 64 GB Ipods; it will use enough optical fibre to wrap twice around the earth; its central computer will have the processing power of about 100 million PCs, and it will be so sensitive that it will be able to detect typical airport radar – on a planet, 50 light years away.3

SKA is one of the few things imaginable that ‘needs’ the Karoo, like no other place. That is because radio telescopes must be as far away as possible from man-made electronics or machines, because their emissions will interfere with the mostly very weak signals. In addition, radio waves are absorbed by moisture in the atmosphere, so somewhere high and dry is ideal. Hence the Karoo.

In part, to complement the aims of this mega-science project, and ensure the long-term viability of the area, the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act 2007, came into force. It deals with many things, in particular with light pollution (and radio interference) but only in certain restricted areas.

What happens is that the Minister of Science and Technology declares areas of the Republic ‘astronomy advantage’ areas.4 The idea is to enhance astronomical practices and opportunities and minimise radio, light and human population interference.

A. Astronomy advantage areas

  1. Save for certain exempted persons5 it is an offence, unless you have written permission from the management authority of the particular area, to enter, reside in or perform any activity likely to prejudice the astronomical benefits of an area declared as a ‘core astronomy advantage area’.6

  2. Even if you are permitted in the area, it is an offence to have in your possession any potential source of radio frequency interference except if you have specific written permission.7

B. Declared prohibited actitivities

  1. The Minister can declare a range of activities to be prohibited in the area in question, or can impose conditions under which the activity may continue. These can range from mining to industry, construction, even street lighting, and basically anything likely to impact upon astronomy and related scientific endeavours. If he does so, it is a criminal offence not to comply with the declaration,8 or with the conditions.9

  2. Sometimes, before taking any action, the Minister may conduct a public participation process. It is a criminal offence to supply false information as part of any public participation process.10

  3. The Minister can prescribe conditions and standards regarding the manner in which certain activities may be undertaken in an astronomy advantage area. Anyone who wishes to undertake the activity must notify the Minister (or his delegated competent authority), who can require an Environmental Impact Assessment Report. It is a criminal offence to supply false information for the purposes of any such report.11

  4. It is also an offence not to comply with any conditions imposed by the Minister under which a specific activity may be undertaken.12

  5. The Minister can (insofar as concerns broadcasting in astronomy advantage areas) prescribe measures and standards for the control or minimisation of light pollution, radio frequency interference and in fact any other activity. It is a criminal offence to contravene any such standard and measures.13

  6. It is, in fact, an offence to contravene any condition imposed in any authorisation or exemption issued or prescribed in terms of the Act.14

C. Management authorities

  1. The authority designated to manage a particular ‘astronomy advantage’ area has the power to issue notices to any person who is in default of complying with any permit, authorisation, or other provision of the Act. Any person who fails to comply with such a notice commits a criminal offence.15

  2. Any person who falsely pretends to be an official, staff member, interpreter or assistant of a management authority commits an offence.16

  3. It is an offence if you interfere with or hinder a management authority, or one of its officials or staff members in their performance of official duties.17

  1. – ‘Everything you wanted to know about the SKA’. 

  2. See the website for this kind of information. 

  3. This means 450 trillion kilometres. 

  4. A massive area has been proclaimed as the Karoo Radio Astronomy Reserve. 

  5. See Section 20(2) of the Act. 

  6. Section 20(1)(a) and (b) read with section 2(1)(a). 

  7. Section 20(1)(c) read with section 52(1)(a). 

  8. Section 23(1) read with section 52(1)(b). 

  9. Section 23(3) read with section 52(1)(b). 

  10. Section 52(1)(g). 

  11. Section 52(1)(g). 

  12. Section 52(1)(c) read with section 27(2). 

  13. Section 52(1)(d) read with section 37(1) and 37(2). 

  14. Section 52(1)(e). 

  15. Section 46 read with section 44. 

  16. Section 52(1)(h). 

  17. Section 52(1)(f).