SKA bid could be announced tomorrow

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pretoria - South Africa is holding its breath as members of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Organisation meet in the Netherlands tomorrow.

Following their meeting, the members are expected to announce the preferred site for hosting the world's largest radio telescope.

South Africa is up against Australia in the bid to host the telescope, which will be built in 2024 in the Karoo in the Northern Cape, if the country wins the bid.

The SKA will consist of about 3 000 dish-shaped antennae spread over a wide area. The core of the telescope will be constructed in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape, with outlying telescope stations throughout South Africa, and in Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya, Madagascar and Mauritius.

On Thursday, the Department of Science and Technology said it would hold a media briefing tomorrow afternoon in anticipation of the announcement.

The announcement was delayed in April when members of the SKA Organisation agreed it was necessary to set up a small scientific working group to explore possible implementation options that would ensure that there was an inclusive approach to SKA, as well as maximise the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions.

The working group was expected to report back to the members at a meeting in mid-May. The report was expected to provide additional information to facilitate the site decision for SKA.

At the time, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said she was disappointed at the delay and hoped that the SKA organisation would make a decision in the first half of 2012 and that the decision will reflect the best scientific outcome.

"We believe we have an excellent site at which exciting science will be done. We in Africa are ready to host the SKA," said Pandor.

Scientists are expected to use the SKA to search the universe for answers about how stars and galaxies are formed and how galaxies and the universe have evolved over the past 14 billion years.

Pandor has likened the bid to host the SKA to winning the "Science World Cup" as it will bring huge investments and opportunities for the country, as well as give science and engineering a major boost.

The Karoo was chosen as the ideal location because the area is sparsely populated yet not so remote that construction and operation costs can be excessive. The Karoo is shielded from "radio frequency interference" coming from surrounding towns by a series of mountains and hills. The area is being developed as a "radio astronomy reserve" that is legally protected against future radio frequency interference.

A consortium of countries will construct the instrument that will cost more than R15 billion to build.

Astronomers and engineers around the world - including South Africa - are already working on its design. Building will start around 2016 and the telescope will be completed by 2024. It should be ready to do early science in 2020.

As part of the SKA project, the SKA South African Human Capital Development Programme was undertaken. Academics from the African partner countries and collaborating institutions beyond Africa have worked out a plan for the further development of centres of expertise in relevant science and engineering disciplines throughout Africa.

This will provide an extensive pool for scientists and engineers who will participate in African and global radio astronomy projects.