SOUTH AFRICA had to give up a slice of the world's biggest astronomy project this week to avoid any further delays in its implementation.
Leaders of the local bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) agreed that "politics" had played a role in South Africa having to share the project with Australia and New Zealand.
Speaking to the Sunday Times after the announcement on Friday, Professor Justin Jonas from SKA South Africa said the decision was a matter of "consensus politics".
"The independent [advisory] team had said the technical solution was a single site in South Africa. But, in reality, in big international projects there is some degree of politics at play," Jonas said.
The SKA radio telescope, which will be completed by 2024, will be the world's largest and most sensitive, able to probe deep into space. South Africa had been working on its bid since 2003 and was widely tipped as the frontrunner.
The decision on the host site should have been announced in April, but it was delayed after a report by the advisory committee recommending South Africa was leaked to the media.
The announcement was made after a meeting of members of the SKA consortium at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands.
Residents of Carnarvon in the Karoo were yesterday overjoyed at the announcement.
Liz McKinnon, owner of the Lemon Tree Coffee Shop, said: "I listened to the news over the radio ...I think it is absolutely fantastic because this is a very poor community."
Esau Hoorn, owner of Jumani Funerals, said: "It is exciting, but the community is unsure how it will affect their lives." He hoped the telescope would find new planets so that one could be named after the town.
Jonas said scientists and politicians would have grown impatient over further delays in the decision-making process.
The split means that one of the three SKA receivers will be set up in Australia and two in South Africa.
The project will proceed in two phases. The first will set up about 10% of the entire SKA project and use the MeerKAT telescope being built in the Karoo by South African scientists and engineers, as well as a similar telescope in Australia, as its basis. Phase two will result in about 4000 dishes being erected in Africa.
Jonas said 10% would be split among the eight partner countries in Africa, namely Ghana, Botswana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Zambia, Namibia and Mozambique. Of those remaining, 50% would be placed in the Karoo and 40% in the rest of South Africa.
Jonas said if there was a technical justification for preferring South Africa, it was because the Karoo had a 1000m elevation, much higher than the Australian site .
Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said she was ecstatic that South Africa had been awarded the majority of the project, and accepted the compromise in the interest of its progress.
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