South Africa is waiting with bated breath for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) site decision, expected on Friday, which will indicate whether South Africa or Australia will host the biggest scientific project in the world.
For the competing nations, there is much at stake. On the one hand, it is about reputation. Australia is a radio-astronomy heavyweight, a world leader in the discipline and a driver of the SKA concept. For South Africa, being selected as the preferred site is a matter of pride, a symbol that the country has a place in the global scientific arena and salt in the eye of Afro-pessimism.
But on the other hand, it is about money. There is the upfront construction costs of about R23bn to build thousands of dishes, and operating costs estimated at R1bn a year for the telescope's life, which is roughly 50 years. This will be funded by an international consortium of about 70 institutions from 20 countries.
Also, both bidding countries have skills shortages. South Africa's dearth of skills, high unemployment rate and low science and maths matriculant pass rate are well documented. Australia has also been experiencing a skills shortage and last month it was reported the country would import skilled workers from the US.
A project such as the SKA assures the winning country of an increase in skills, due to human capital development programmes and skill transfers from the international engineers and artisans who will come to the country to build and operate the telescope.
The SKA is referred to as a telescope, but it is in fact three different collections of antennas, although the exact form these collections will take is still to be decided. One of these arrays comprises 3000 receptors spiralling through the chosen continent.
No single country is big enough to host the SKA in its entirety, which is why bidding countries have partnered with neighbouring nations. South Africa has joined forces with Mozambique, Zambia, Mauritius, Madagascar, Ghana, Kenya, Botswana and Namibia, while Australia and New Zealand have a unified bid.
What is often forgotten in discussions about skills and foreign direct investment is that the SKA will be the most sensitive radio telescope in the world, able to shed light on questions such as "Are we alone in the universe?", "Are there other habitable planets?" and "Did the universe begin with the Big Bang?"
South Africa hopes the answers to these questions will come from a radio telescope based in Africa.
Source: Business Day
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