SKA upbeat, despite Germany’s withdrawal

Germany has pulled out of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Organisation, a blow to the project that plans to build the world’s largest radio telescope. But while insiders lament Germany’s withdrawal, they do not see it as a death knell for the project.

With thousands of antennae spread across South Africa and Australia, 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.

The SKA Organisation, the international body overseeing the pre-construction phase of the giant telescope, said in a statement last week that it “[regretted] the decision, and understands it is driven by difficult national financial circumstances around the funding of large research infrastructures in Germany and Europe and that it by no means reflects a lack of confidence in the SKA project”.

Germany’s withdrawal reduces the number of member of countries to 10: Australia, Canada, China, India (associate member), Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

SKA SA director Bernie Fanaroff said on Monday that Germany’s Max Plank Institute remained a member of the project, but that the German ministry had pulled out. “I don’t think we should write off Germany in the long run, though,” he said.

“There’s a general recognition that there’s progress and momentum in the project.”

SA, Australia’s vested interest
Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor on Friday “noted with regret” that Germany withdrew from the project, and said she would set up a meeting with her German counterparts to discuss the matter. Germany’s membership is still paid up until the end June next year.

Both South Africa and Australia have a vested interest in the project succeeding, as both countries have spent millions of euros on the construction of their precursor telescopes, the MeerKAT and ASKAP respectively.

In March this year, the United Kingdom was the first SKA Organisation member to pledge a firm funding for the project – about £119-million.

The SKA Organisation said that the main losers in Germany’s withdrawal would be German industry. Only SKA member countries can bid for major construction contracts within the project, and will also be allowed limited time on the telescope as SKA members will get preferential time allotment.

At the moment, the SKA is in its pre-construction phase, with €650-million earmarked for the design of the project. “[Germany’s] decision will have no effect on the project due to the limited German federal funding that has been issued so far. Involvement from German institutions, industry and scientists in the SKA’s science working groups and in design work through the design consortia is unlikely to be affected in the short term,” the SKA Organisation said.

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