SKA delay could end in a draw

A SHARED site is now being mooted as a win-win outcome for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, after the organisation's founding board decided to convene a group to investigate maximising "the value from the investments made by both sides".

This is another delay in the process of choosing a site for the world's largest radio telescope. SA is bidding against Australia to host the R23bn SKA, which will consist of about 3 000 antennae.

"This working group will report back to the members at a meeting in mid-may; its report will provide additional information to facilitate the site decision for SKA," the project's board, made up of representatives of countries funding the project, announced yesterday.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor yesterday expressed "disappointment" at the delay. "I hope that the SKA Organisation will make a decision in the first half of 2012 and that the decision will reflect the best scientific outcome," she said.

But whether the site advisory committee recommended one site as technically superior - unconfirmed Australian newspaper reports said SA was recommended
- a shared site was always a possibility, though it had not been stated as an official option. Both bidders have said it would not be in the project's best interests to share the site.

In 2006, SA and Australia were announced as the preferred bidders for the SKA, and began building precursor telescopes to show their commitment.
Australia has Askap, the Australian SKA Pathfinder. It will have 36 antennae and a price tag of 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.

The 64-dish MEERKAT will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere.

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.

Although not available for comment yesterday, SKA SA director Bernie Fanaroff last year said: "If built on two sites, we don't know what it will look like."

Australian Science Minister Chris Evans was reported earlier this year as saying that the country would not be interested in sharing the hosting of the world's largest radio telescope.

Ms Pandor said last month that this was "one of the few things the Australian minister and I agree on". When asked last year about the possibility of a win-win situation, she said: "We will have to look at it if it is proposed. (We) will consider any proposal that will be of benefit to Africa.

"Although the problem with compromise is that Africa often loses out."

Origin: Business Day


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