SA confident of winning mega-telescope bid

A final decision on which country will host the giant Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope is now expected in 2011, the Cabinet announced on Thursday.

South Africa was confident it would win the bid, government communications head Themba Maseko told a media briefing at Parliament on Thursday, following the Cabinet’s fortnightly meeting the day before.

South Africa and Australia are the two short-listed bidders for the €1,5-billion project.

Contacted for comment, SKA South Africa project director Dr Bernie Fanaroff told the South African Press Association both countries had planned smaller versions of SKA, and “site construction on these ... will only start next year”.

The decision on which country would be given the project would be largely based on the success of the smaller versions, he said.

The SKA will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built, comprising thousands of dishes, each 10m to 15m in diameter. Its total receiving area will add up to about one million square metres.

If the decision goes South Africa’s way, the core of the SKA will be erected in the Northern Cape.
Outer stations will fan out from the core in a spiral pattern, with proposed remote stations in several other African countries and neighbouring islands.

Its designers are hoping the mega-telescope “will unravel the mysteries of the origins and age of the universe”.

According to the project’s website, the SKA will help answer fundamental questions about the laws of nature, including data on dark energy and dark matter, and when the first stars and galaxies were formed.

“If there is life somewhere else in the universe, the SKA will help us find it,” they said.

An international consortium of countries is contributing towards the cost of designing and building the giant telescope.

South Africa is set to start building a mini-SKA, dubbed MeerKAT, near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape next year.—Sapa