THE soonest SA and Australia can hope for a decision about where the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be located is May 25, when members of the SKA Organisation meet.
Both countries are bidding to host the world’s largest radio telescope, but the process has been beleaguered by delays. A decision was expected last month, but the SKA Organisation decided to convene a working group to explore a more "inclusive approach" to the site decision.
SKA Organisation spokes-woman Jo Bowler said on Friday: "Members could take a decision on May 25. They’re under a fair amount of pressure from the governments involved, but also want to make sure they’re making the right decision."
The members would have the working group’s report before they met, said Michiel van Haarlem, SKA Organisation interim director-general, on Friday. "The members could take a decision on May 25; it depends how the discussions go (about the scientific working group’s report). It is the members who ultimately have to take a decision and they have to agree as well — it will be a difficult task," Prof van Haarlem said.
Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor has called for a June decision "at the latest".
Much is at stake for the two countries, which have invested heavily in their bids to host the R23bn telescope. An "inclusive approach" could entail a split site, with SA and Australia sharing the telescope.
"A split is a possibility," Ms Bowler said. "The working group has to look at all the options, which could mean a split site, but this could be done in various ways. (It) has to make sure they’ve covered all possible options."
But the SKA Organisation may not decide on a site at their May 25 meeting. Last month, SKA SA director Bernie Fanaroff said: "All the countries now want to finalise the site decision as a matter of urgency, so the work on the SKA can carry on. "It is impossible to prognosticate. Everyone is hoping it won’t take longer than a couple of months."
There are five countries with voting rights: the UK, China, Italy, the Netherlands and Canada. If the telescope is not split, and it comes to a vote, SA will need at least three out of five votes.
Deputy Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom visited Canada last month, and it is assumed that he was punting SA’s SKA bid. Canada is the most recent country to join the SKA Organisation with voting rights.
In the past few months, tensions have begun to show in the bid for the SKA.
Australian Science Minister Chris Evans caused a stir when he reportedly said that an "aid mind-set" aimed at developing Africa was Australia’s main impediment to hosting the SKA.
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