UK pledges more than R2bn to SKA project

The United Kingdom on Tuesday announced a £119-million contribution to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the largest radio telescope in the world, which will be built in South Africa and Australia. 

With thousands of antennas spread across two continents, the SKA will shed light on some of science's most enigmatic issues: what is dark matter? Is there other life in the universe? How do galaxies form? But the question of funding has loomed over the mega-project – which was initially forecast to cost about €1.5-billion, with official estimates now sitting at €2-billion – as fiscal constraints threaten funding for science around the world.

Professor Phil Diamond, SKA Organisation director general, said: "This is a really exciting announcement for the SKA and solid proof that the project is now really under way. With such a major investment secured, there is no stopping it".

The SKA Organisation, the international body overseeing the pre-construction phase of the telescope, capped the first phase expenditure at €650-million. This phase will see the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder and South African 64-dish MeerKAT telescope being incorporated into the SKA. Later this month, SKA South Africa will unveil the first dish of the MeerKAT, with the full telescope operational by 2016.

Eleven countries are currently members of the SKA Organisation – Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India (associate member), Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK.

"After the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider, the world's next great science project is the Square Kilometre Array; investment in science is a crucial part of this government's long-term economic plan," said UK Science Minister David Willets. " It's about investing in our future, helping grow new industries and create more jobs – and that will mean more financial security for people across the country."

Design is critical
South Africa has earmarked R2-billion for the construction of MeerKAT, a South Africa-designed and funded telescope for which the first five years of observation time have already been booked. The country is arguing for this telescope to form a large part of its contribution to the SKA.

SKA South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff said earlier this year that the SKA Organisation wanted to complete the hosting agreements – which is expected to lay out what is expected from partner countries and what the project will provide by the end of this year.

Late last year, the SKA Organisation announced the design consortia, groups responsible for working out how different aspects of the giant telescope will work. "More than 350 scientists and engineers, representing 18 nations and drawn from nearly 100 institutions, universities and industry, have the challenging task to work on the critical design phase," it said at the time. This stage has a budget of €120-million.

South Africa is leading two consortia: the South African site infrastructure consortium, and the assembly, integration and verification consortium, which "includes the planning for all activities at the remote sites that are necessary to incorporate the elements of the SKA into existing infrastructure, whether these be precursors or new components of the SKA", the organisation said.

Sarah Wild is the author of Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, published by Jacana Media in 2012.

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