S Africa to host most of world's biggest astronomy project

Mon, May 28, 2012, 01:00

SOUTH AFRICA has won the right to host the vast majority of the world’s biggest astronomy project, a development local scientists hope will put Africa on the map in terms of scientific research and development.

The nations belonging to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) organisation announced that South Africa would host 80 per cent of the project in the Karoo desert, an area known for its suitability for astronomy due to its clear skies, low light pollution and high elevation.

The remaining 20 per cent of the project has gone to Australia and New Zealand, which had put forward a rival bid to host the most sensitive telescope yet developed.

The news came as a surprise to the competing bids, as both were under the impression that an outright winner would be chosen.

After the bid result was made public, South African science and technology minister Naledi Pandor said the country had accepted the compromise decision by the SKA Site Advisory Committee “in the interest of science”.

“A meeting of the members has decided to split the project, which is an unexpected decision given the search for a single site,” Ms Pandor said, before adding it would be difficult to be disappointed when South Africa had won the lion’s share.

It is understood the split decision was made for political reasons.

The €1.5 billion SKA project will comprise huge fields of antennas that will scour the sky for answers to many of the unresolved questions in astronomy.

The plan is for the thousands of antennas to amount to a radio telescope with a combined collecting area of one million square metres.

Among other things, the data gathered will enable scientists to investigate the origins of the early universe and search for the presence of alien life.

The project will be developed in two phases. The first will involve setting up about 10 per cent of the SKA project and will use an existing telescope in the Karoo, the MeerKAT, as well as a similar telescope in Australia, as its basis.

Phase two will result in about 4,000 dishes being erected in South Africa and its eight partner countries across the continent. About 90 per cent of the dishes will be erected in the Karoo and other sites in South Africa.

It is hoped the project will be fully functional by 2024.

SKA’s members include the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, China, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.