South Africa scopes out benefits from winning lead role in €1.5B radio telescope

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South Africa’s winning bid to host most of the world’s biggest telescope could give its scientific community a new edge

The long-running international competition to host the world’s biggest radio telescope ended last week with South Africa emerging as the biggest winner – and with the government expecting big benefits to follow in education, research and scientific prestige.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be built at an estimated cost of €1.5 billion, making it the biggest ‘Big Science’ project in the world to be formally launched during this current period of austerity. The agreement to pick South Africa as the main site, with assistance from arch-rival Australia, was reached by the consortium of countries that have committed to contribute to the cost, including Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK. Initial planning for the instrument had been funded by the European Union.

South Africa will operate a series of radio-telescope dishes across a large swathe of the African sub-continent, which will make up two-thirds of the array. Australia and New Zealand, which bid jointly to site the entire telescope in their part of the world, were awarded the smaller, low-frequency component of the project and a survey facility.

From early on in the planning it was agreed to place the dishes in the southern hemisphere – and the key question was which country there would lead the effort.

Michiel van Haarleem, Interim Director General of the SKA Organisation said the decision to split the project between the two leading proposals was a technical one that was not only financially feasible and scientifically appropriate, but would also help ensure ongoing international collaboration and progress in this field of science.

Answering questions no one thought to ask

The project is expected to be carried out in two phases.  The first phase of construction starting in 2013 will allow for limited research by 2020. The second phase beginning in 2018 is due to be ready for complete scientific operations by 2024. Upon completion, the world’s largest radio telescope will comprise 3,000 individual 15-metre wide dishes with a receiver surface of one square kilometre.

With 50 times the sensitivity and 10,000 times the survey speed of current telescopes, it is “probably capable of answering questions we have not even thought to ask yet” said Bernie Fanaroff, Director of the South Africa SKA Project.

At a conference in Brussels on May 29, Fanaroff said that this project has created a very wide range of exciting possibilities for South Africa. “One whole category of projects that goes on around SKA is that we need to develop new technologies for SKA, we need to develop a desire for SKA.” He also noted that strategic measures needed to be taken early on, to create centres of excellence and sustainable human and technical infrastructure.


From the beginning of the competition, both countries were intent on exploiting the potential jobs, research programmes and scientific prestige that would come from winning.


South Africa has been striving to upgrade its astronomy expertise for nearly a decade. In 2007, the government declared 12.5 million hectares (roughly four times the size of Belgium) in the Northern Cape as a radio astronomy reserve for the SKA, providing ample space for what will be one of the largest scientific research facilities in the world.

In one of the initial programs, the government set up an SKA bursary program in 2005 that has so far awarded over 300 grants and bursaries to students in South Africa and around the world to help prepare future leaders in science.

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