Initial estimate puts SKA giant telescope “three times over budget”

The initial costing for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope is three times the capped budget, coming in at €1.8-billion (R25.5-billion).

The giant telescope, which will comprise thousands of antennae in Australia and Africa, with the core in South Africa, will be the largest scientific experiment in the world and will attempt to answer some of humanity’s most enigmatic questions, such as: Is there other life in the universe, how do galaxies form and what is dark matter?

Last year, the SKA board capped the expenditure on the first phase of the telescope at €650-million. “The evolution of the SKA phase one project to fit within this cost ceiling will be guided during the design phase by both scientific and engineering assessments of the baseline design undertaken by the SKA office,” the board said at the time.

As part of the bid to host the giant telescope, Australia and South Africa developed precursor telescopes, named Askap [Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder] and MeerKAT respectively. In phase one, these precursor telescopes will be incorporated into what will become the SKA. The first dish of the 64-dish MeerKAT was erected this year and the entire telescope is expected to come online in 2017.

SKA Organisation director general Phil Diamond calls the €1.8-billion – which is being touted throughout the radio-astronomy community – a “headline number” and a “naive addition of the maximal costs submitted by the various design consortia”.

‘Maximum design costs’
Late last year, the SKA Organisation announced the design consortia that will be 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.

Diamond told the Mail & Guardian that the high ballpark figure was expected. He explained using the computing costs included in the €1.8-billion number, which account for about 30% of the total. “Those computing costs were what we would have to budget to deliver the maximum performance of SKA1 [SKA phase one] on the day we turned it on, which is a nonsense scenario.

“What the computing consortium delivered to us, as requested, was the maximum costs of the various computing subsystems and the scaling laws, so we can estimate the real budget for the start of SKA1 and how the capabilities would be phased over time,” Diamond said. “The true budget for computing is a small fraction of the maximal cost.”

This is the same for the other design consortia, he said.

SKA South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff said: “In most cases, they [the design consortia] were instructed to design for the extreme case … and it’s been clear for a long time that there would have to be rebaselining – in other words, modifications to this design. There are already very clear options for dramatically reducing costs.”

The question driving this rebaselining, Fanaroff said, is: How do you maintain the science objectives while cutting costs?

‘Within the money’
He said that, at the SKA board meeting in Manchester last week, “the report given to the board was that you can maintain almost all of the science objectives and still come in within the money”.

However, Fanaroff said that it was important to design and build the SKA for its capabilities, rather than for specific science cases.

“By the time this is built, the science will have advanced and some of the [existing SKA] science cases may have been already done by MeerKAT [or other instruments] … With an instrument like this [the SKA], which goes beyond anything built up until now, you expect the main product to be serendipitous discoveries,” he said.

Serendipity is when people make accidental discoveries, uncovering something they did not expect to find. This is recognised as an important influence in scientific discovery. “[These discoveries] are not part of the [SKA] science case,” Fanaroff said. “Because no one knows they exist.”

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 (Jacana Media, 2012).

  • This headline was changed on December 9 2014 after Bernie Fanaroff, the SKA director locally, pointed out that as no money had been spent as yet, the project could not be running over budget.
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    Sarah Wild
    Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

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