SKA: it’s a compromise

May 25, 2012 • Mobile and Telecoms, Top Stories

Months of speculation is over.  The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope is to reside in both South Africa and Australia.

South Africa's Minister of Science and Technology, Mrs. Naledi Pandor. (Image: File)

SA, with backing from eight partners across the continent, was chosen the preferred site for the construction of two-thirds of the SKA.

The decision followed the outcome of a meeting of the members of the SKA Organisation at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands and was announced this afternoon at a press briefing held simultaneously in Pretoria and Cape Town.

It has been a much anticipated announcement and follows an intensive adjudication process by the SKA Board, involving recommendations by the SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC) who were tasked with evaluating the merits of site proposals from South Africa and Australia.

Although the SSAC identified, by consensus, Africa as the preferred site, in order to be inclusive, the SKA Organisation agreed to consider constructing one of the three SKA receiver components in Australia. Two will be constructed in Africa.

The MeerKAT will supplement the sensitive SKA Phase 1 dish array, providing the majority of the collection area of what will be the most sensitive radio telescope in the world. It was confirmed that the eight African states would also gain receivers.

The SKA is about 50 – 100 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope on Earth. According to online information about the project the construction of the SKA is expected to cost about 1.5 billion Euro and a significant portion of capital, operations and maintenance costs would be spent on the host country.

South Africa proposed the Karoo as its core site.

In March it was reported that a final decision would be made on April 04, but this was delayed as Committee members considered proposals.

Outside of the official of discussion and activity within the SKA Board and SSAC, local and international media ran reports of debates emerging and speculation over the strength of bids.

At the time South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Mrs Naledi Pandor, refused to engage in a debate with the Australian Minister and reiterated that South Africa and its SKA partner countries have a site which is able to demonstrate its scientific, technical and cost superiority.

“We were not surprised at the outcome of the SSAC deliberations as reported in the Australian press, as we have always been confident of the scientific and technical strength of our bid. Nonetheless, we recognise the importance of inclusivity and the imperative of ensuring all members of the SKA Organisation are part of discussions and consultations on how to ensure that all parties contribute to and derive benefit from the ultimate success of the global SKA project.

That, however, should not be interpreted in such a way as to diminish the importance of the reported recommendation made as a result of an extremely exhaustive site evaluation process (involving in our case the submission of about 25 000 pages of documentation) by an independent committee of some of the world’s leading scientists and science administrators. Africa is ready to host the SKA and wants to do so. We are entirely committed to the success of the SKA and believe that it is best achieved in Africa,” said the Minister.

In today’s media briefing the Minister said “she was thrilled” and described the decision by the SKA Organisation as “a triumph for Africa and new era of science and technology on the continent.”

Chris Tredger

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