Australia, South Africa to share the SKA
Super telescope to "shed light on the universe"
May 25, 2012
THE bid to host the world's largest radio telescope has ended in a tie, with the project to span South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
The announcement was made this evening by the SKA Organisation's board, which had gathered in The Netherlands.
"We have decided on a dual site approach," said SKA board chairman John Womersley at a press conference held at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.
South Africa's site for the project is the Karoo region in the Northern Cape, while the joint site spreads from the Murchison Shire in Western Australia's Mid-West region to the top of New Zealand's South Island.
The Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, will be the largest and most capable radio telescope ever made and will allow scientists to see back in time.
The $2 billion project comprising 3000 dishes will be funded by a consortium of 20 nations and seeks to answer the biggest questions about the early universe.
With a discovery potential 10,000 times greater than the best present-day instruments, it will observe such things as what happened after the big bang and how galaxies evolved, and will attempt to uncover more about the "dark energy" that fills the majority of the universe.
The telescope array, which is expected to have a working life of several decades, could even detect signals that may be from extraterrestrials.
According to Scientific American magazine, the South African bid was at one stage viewed as narrowly superior to the joint proposal because the site was at a higher altitude and construction costs were lower.
The Australia/New Zealand bid, on the other hand, offered cheaper insurance costs and less likelihood of the site being encroached on by future development.
Both sites were shortlisted because they were regions of minimal radio interference.
Australian Science and Research Minister, Senator Chris Evans, and New Zealand Minister for Science and Innovation, Steven Joyce, welcomed the decision as the best outcome.
“This is an outstanding result for the Australia-New Zealand bid after many years of preparation and an intensive international process,” Senator Evans said.
Minister Joyce said the announcement was a significant win for science and astronomy research in New Zealand and Australia.
“Australia and New Zealand have worked hard, in partnership, to get to this point and we have established a solid foundation to continue our successful collaboration as we enter the next phase of the SKA project.”
Peter Quinn, director of the Perth-based Institutional Centre for Radioastronomy Research, said he was happy with the decision, which made a lot of scientific and commercial sense.
It would take advantage of the best of both sites and build on the investments that had already been made by the bidders, Professor Quinn said.
"It's not just window dressing - this is a real, sensible solution," Prof. Quinn told AAP.
He said phase one of the project would run until about 2020 and would involve construction of 10 per cent of the array, with the remainder to be built in phase two.
Both sides would have their turn with either low frequency aperture arrays or high frequency dishes, but WA would initially experiment with the first elements of middle frequency technology during phase one.
South Africa would also be considered for middle frequency technology, but only after the results of phase one were assessed, he said.
"So we're going to have first crack at this," Prof Quinn said.
WA Minister for Science and Innovation John Day said he was very pleased with the outcome of the bid, which would build on the substantial body of scientific expertise in the state and provide opportunities to further develop technology.
"Who knows what might develop?" Mr Day told AAP.