The South African and Australian governments seem to agree on one thing: they are both ready to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), and diplomacy has tamped down on their frustration at another delay in the site decision.
THE South African and Australian governments seem to agree on one thing: they are both ready to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), and diplomacy has tamped down on their frustration at another delay in the site decision.
They are competing to host the largest radio telescope on earth, which will also be the planet’s largest scientific instrument. But it is not only about the prestige: there is a great deal of money involved — the total construction cost keeps rising, at the moment it is estimated at R23bn — as well as the tantalising prospects of skills development and job creation.
A SKA site decision was expected on April 4, but instead the SKA Founding Board announced that it would set up a working group to assess an "inclusive approach" which would involve both countries.
SA and Australia have tried to outdo each other and show their willingness and ability. This rivalry has taken the form of radio astronomy instruments with hefty price tags.
Australia has Askap, the Australian SKA Pathfinder. It will have 36 antennae and cost A$100m — about R800m — with construction expected to be completed next year.
SA has taken a more phased approach: the seven-dish Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7) is complete, and tenders are being considered for the construction of a pathfinder, the MeerKAT, which will be completed in 2016.
The cost of SA’s radio astronomy build has been estimated at more than R2bn. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan allocated about R895m to the MeerKAT in his budget speech in February.
This was all part of the bidding process: the two countries had to put their money where their mouths were, and prove that they were better than the other bidder. But this process has gone too far for there to be just one winner.
Last week, the SKA Founding Board, the international body which will oversee the pre-construction process including the site decision, said it was "recognised that it is desirable to maintain an inclusive approach to SKA".
Members of the SKA organisation, a not-for-profit company which will govern the SKA, "noted that it is important to maximise the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions". In order to do that, a working group was set up to decide how this "inclusive approach" would work. It would report back in the middle of next month, the founding board said.
Reading between the lines: this group will investigate whether it is possible to split the SKA, and how this split would affect the science and the cost. It has been reported that the SKA will consist of 3000 antennae spiralling up Africa or Australia-New Zealand, but it is much more than that. There are actually three different "cores" in the heart of the SKA, split along frequency lines: two low-frequency arrays and one mid-frequency array.
A South African source involved in the SKA project says: "If it were hypothetically to happen, one of the proposals is about the frequency range. There would be three different sets of receivers, each targeting a different part of the frequency spectrum. That would be the most efficient way to do it."
But no one knows what this would look like, which is why the working group was convened.
The problem with this scenario is that, even with a split, one country would have drawn the short straw. Some of the arrays are more labour-and infrastructure-intensive than others, which correlates to more foreign direct investment and jobs.
Both Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor and her Australian counterpart Chris Evans have said that it would not be a good idea to split the SKA. On the one hand, sharing the SKA is a lose-lose situation because neither country would benefit from hosting the SKA in its entirety. But on the other, it would mean that billions of euros in investment would not go to waste.
The bidding process has gone as planned, up until this point.
It seems like a very expensive game of chicken: there are now two countries, with excellent radio astronomy ability, which have invested a disproportional amount of money into bidding for a large scientific instrument. Neither of them has dropped the ball.
The site advisory committee recommended one country on technical grounds; Australian newspapers reported SA had been recommended, but this has not been confirmed by official sources.
When politics, money and reputation are involved, negotiation is the only way to close the process.
Source: Business Day