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SKA is about ground-breaking science, not egos

Date Released: Mon, 28 May 2012 12:00 +0200

Having both Australia and South Africa on board will enable the SKA to perform the best science possible. That should be the focus, not our egos.
WHILE many South Africans were jubilant at the news that SA would be splitting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope with Australia, others chose to see it as an unfair compromise and "a kick in the teeth for Africa on Africa Day".
But the reality is that a split was always the most likely outcome. It was just a question of which country got what percentage.
A number of issues have been conflated — African pride, the need to prove ourselves against Australia, and the money. But the heart of the SKA is about doing ground-breaking science in the best possible place with the best possible people.
The main argument cited for why SA should have won the SKA in its entirety is that the country was recommended by the site selection advisory committee. But, as stated by SKA SA director Bernie Fanaroff: "It was always said that the technical recommendation would be one of the elements considered, but it was never the case that it would automatically determine the outcome."
This is because there are a number of other elements to look at, not least the large investment by both countries. SA has spent about R2bn on its SKA precursor telescope, MeerKAT, and Australia’s precursor, ASKAP, has a A$100m price tag. That is a very large investment, given the close scrutiny of science budgets in the present economic climate.
"(The split) brings the precursor telescopes into the project," SKA Organisation director John Womersley said after the site decision on Friday. "The decision was science-motivated and strengthens the project in the long run … Everyone is in favour of it: SA, Australia and the SKA Organisation."
The SKA is an interferometer, a large collection of antennas acting as one very big telescope, which will observe a range of frequencies. The split will fall along frequency lines. SA has been awarded the lion’s share of the SKA and, because of frequencies it has been allocated, its eight partner countries will also have satellite stations.
Two SKA phases have been planned: SKA1 and SKA2. SKA1 will incorporate existing infrastructure in Australia and SA, including the precursor telescopes. This phase comprises a mid-frequency, low frequency and survey array. SA will host the mid-frequency, while the other two arrays will be in Australia.
SKA2 comprises a low-frequency, mid-frequency and the aperture array, with SA hosting the mid-frequency and aperture arrays. This means that SA will host the dish array, with dishes spiralling up through Africa.
Being awarded 70% of the SKA is, observes Dr Fanaroff, "a huge victory" for Africa. "It recognises the fact that Africa was recommended and that 70% of the SKA will be built in Africa. It shows great confidence in Africa," he says.
Bear in mind that SA was the dark horse in the race for the SKA. The country was initially an observing country and only decided to bid to host the telescope in the mid-2000s, whereas Australia was a driving force from the start and was involved in the conceptualisation of the mammoth radio telescope.
Australia has been one of the world leaders in radio astronomy since the discipline began to develop in the post-World War Two period. In fact, in the 1960s it was decided that SA should not develop its radio astronomy capacity because of the high cost and because Australia had such an impressive head start.
In the past decade, SA has played catch-up and the recommendation by the site advisory committee shows that we are now a global radio astronomy player, but we should not become so drunk on competitive fervour that we forget Australia has skills and expertise.
In the 21st century, scientific research is about collaboration, and the SKA — whatever guise it took — was always going to be a collaborative effort by several countries. The telescope will be better for having Australian scientists and engineers included in the project, and opens the doors for a better exchange of skills and engagement. "The more countries that participate, the better," Dr Fanaroff says.
Having both Australia and SA on board will enable the SKA to perform the best science possible. That should be the focus, not our egos.
Source: Business Day