• Potentially Astronomical Impact of the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act
  • January 15, 2013
  • Law Firm: Norton Rose Canada LLP - Montreal Office
  • Introduction

    In February 2010, the Minister of Science and Technology declared all land in the Northern Cape Province situated 250 kilometres from the centre of the South African Large Telescope dome as an astronomy advantage area for optical astronomy purposes and the whole of the territory of the Northern Cape Province, excluding Kimberly, as an astronomy advantage area for radio astronomy purposes. Furthermore, those parts of the Northern Cape which are to contain the SALT dome, the MeerKAT radio telescope and the multi-billion rand Square Kilometre Array have been declared as core astronomy advantage areas. While all land within a 3 kilometre radius of the centre of the SALT dome falls under the Sutherland Core Astronomy Advantage Area, 13 406, 8090 hectares of the Kareeberg and Karoo Hoogland municipal areas, consisting of three sections of farming land, constitute the Karroo Core Astronomy Advantage Area. The minister has also notified the public of an intention to declare portions of the established astronomy advantage areas as either central or coordinated astronomy advantage areas.

    Prohibited Activities

    Regulations have been gazetted under the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, 2007, which restrict activities in core astronomy advantage areas including: prospecting and mining activities; harmful industrial process; the construction and development of new business or residential premises or recreational facilities; the operation, construction or expansion of facilities for the generation, transmission or distribution of electricity; or any other activity which might detrimentally impact on astronomy and related scientific endeavors. While any form of prospecting or mining is already prohibited throughout the declared core astronomy advantage areas, the restriction of any activity which may cause light pollution or interfere with the radio frequency spectrum 9 kHz to 3000 GHz in these areas, could severely limit shale gas exploration or renewable electricity generation projects in core astronomy advantage areas as well as central and coordinated astronomy advantage areas which are still to be declared. 


    The objects of the Act include, to provide measures to advance astronomy and related scientific endeavors in South Africa and to identify and protect areas in which astronomy projects of national strategic importance may be undertaken. The Act empowers the minister to declare any area in South Africa, including the Northern Cape, as an astronomy advantage area. One of the purposes of the declaration of areas as astronomy advantage areas is to ensure that the geographic areas which are suitable for astronomy and related scientific endeavors due to, for instance, atmospheric transparency, low levels of light pollution, low population density or minimal radio frequency interferences, are protected, preserved and properly maintained. Before the minister declares a core, central or coordinated astronomy advantage area, she must conduct a public participation process with all interested and affected parties.


    The Act distinguishes between three types of astronomy advantage areas, namely core astronomy advantage areas, central astronomy advantage areas and coordinated astronomy advantage areas. The declaration of a core astronomy advantage area may be issued to provide protection from light pollution, radio frequency interference and any other activity which may affect astronomy, to protect an area in which part or all of an astronomy device is situated, or to make an area primarily available for scientific research. An area may be declared a central astronomy advantage area in order to restrict activities which may affect astronomy and ensure the protection of a core astronomy advantage area from such activities or to ensure that development in that area does not negatively impact on the astronomy advantage of the area. The purpose of the declaration of a coordinated astronomy advantage area is to create a buffer zone for the protection of a core or central astronomy advantage area, to ensure that development does not negatively impact on astronomy advantage in that area and to protect a specific astronomy advantage outside of a core or central astronomy advantage area.


    The minister has wide-sweeping powers in terms of the Act to declare that no person may, in a core or central astronomy advantage area, conduct any activity. A person who undertakes a restricted activity in contravention of a notice published by the minister in terms of the Act is guilty of an offence and is liable on conviction for a fine not exceeding R 1 000 000 or for imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years, or for both such a fine and imprisonment.


    While the moratorium on shale gas explorations, also known as fracking, has been lifted by Cabinet, the declaration of the Northern Cape as an astronomy advantage area may limit any such activity in this area in the future. Fracking involves the use of hydraulic fracturing, whereby drillers blast large amounts of sand and water, laced with chemicals, deep underground to extract gas from shale deposits and can cause earth tremors. Such seismic disturbances may interfere with the highly sensitive radio telescopes that will make up the network of SKA dishes. It is likely that fracking will also involve the transportation of large amounts of water, sand and other materials by truck, the illumination of rigs and radio communication to keep personal in contact with one another.  No definitive answer has yet been forthcoming whether fracking is likely to have any detrimental impact on astronomy, and if this is the case, how such activity is to be harmonised with the protection of astronomy advantage areas.

    Wind Turbines

    Another activity which may potentially be at odds with the objects of the Act is that of the generation of renewable energy, specifically through the use of wind turbines. There is a possibility that the power generation equipment used in harnessing wind energy may result in electromagnetic interference with radio astronomy observations. In addition, there is a possibility that the turbine blades will reflect distant radio signals from other transmitters onto the radio telescopes and act as secondary transmitters. This may result in detrimental effects to any radio astronomy facilities. The extensive power requirements of the SKA and the MeerKAT radio telescope are likely to play a prominent role in determining the extent to which the generation of electrical energy through the establishment of wind and solar power projects is to be permitted in the Northern Cape.


    The award of effectively 70% of the SKA bid to South Africa is a significant achievement and is likely to lead to job creation in the field of science and technology and boost South Africa’s international profile. Work still needs to be done in the way of engaging interested parties through the public participation process and analysing those activities which may have potentially detrimental effects on astronomy advantage areas.  Government will need to decide on a way forward in terms of aligning its astronomy objectives with other imperatives, such as energy and resource demands and, where necessary, prioritising certain areas or objectives over others. The Act and its regulations will have to be implemented accordingly, while ensuring that the Act’s underlying objects are upheld.