Africa and Australia battle for giant radio telescope
By Christiane Oelrich and Laszlo Trankovits Mar 27, 2012, 12:03 GMT
Cape Town/Sydney - A consortium of eight African nations, led by South Africa, is competing against a joint bid from Australia and New Zealand for the right to construct the world's biggest radio telescope.
Both bids insist the competition to build the 2-billion-dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope is a purely scientific one, but the decision also has a highly political dimension.
The SKA will have up to 50 times the sensitivity and 10,000 times the speed of current radio telescopes, say astronomers.
Researchers hope the telescope will help solve major questions in astrophysics, such as testing Einstein's theory of gravity and general relativity. Also, it may help humanity better understand when the first black holes and stars appeared.
Australia and South Africa are considered good locations for the SKA telescope, which needs a remote and unpopulated area with low levels of radio interference.
Australian Science Minister, Chris Evans, recently made trips to Beijing and Rome to canvass support for Australia and New Zealand's joint bid.
'We believe we have a winning combination in a remote and radio silent site, a world leading communication system in the National Broadband Network and the engineering and technical expertise to turn this scientific dream into a reality,' Evans said in February in Beijing.
South Africa's Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom, also led a delegation to China to 'strengthen scientific and technology relations, in the field of radio astronomy,' according to the ministry.
However, European diplomats in Pretoria believe China is sceptical about Africa as a location for the SKA project.
Meanwhile, South Africa and its eight SKA partner countries - Namibia, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Mauritius and Botswana - fear the scientific world could decide against Africa.
'Our biggest problem is our image,' said Hanekom. This, despite South Africa having top-notch universities in cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg.
A defeat for the African bid could be interpreted on the continent as a sign of colonial arrogance, observers say.
The SKA member states, including Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, Britain and China, will begin their final round of consultations in early April, although the final announcement about which country will host the project will likely take longer.
The project has yet to secure full financial backing from the 20 SKA member countries. The United States withdrew from the SKA project in 2010.
With a planned completion date of 2024, the SKA telescope will comprise 3,000 dishes, each 15 metres in diameter and with a total surface area of one square kilometre. Construction is set to commence in 2016.
Seven dishes with 15-metre diameters are already in place in the heart of South Africa's sparsely populated Karoo semi-desert region, which the government has declared an astronomical protection zone.
Even if the SKA bid is unsuccessful, South Africa says it will still move ahead with plans to construct 64 linked radio dishes for what is being called the MeerKat project - which features a design closely aligned with the build requirements for the SKA.
Australia not only has an ideal location for the SKA telescope, it also has a long history of operating radio telescopes.
The 600 million people who watched the 1969 television transmission of the Apollo 11 moonwalk did so courtesy of the 64-metre-diameter Parkes telescope, situated 350 kilometres west of Sydney.
'Australia's single greatest scientific strength is in radio astronomy,' said Michael Bryson, the Science Ministry official responsible for the SKA bid. 'The very strong case for doing the SKA in Australia is the strong alignment between the geography and the technical aspects.'
The Australian bid has highlighted the region's settled weather patterns and quiet ionosphere, which is important for the constant wave transmissions, as well as boasting good economic conditions and a stable security situation.
The CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, is currently constructing a radio telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in the Mid West region of Western Australia together with scientists from the Netherlands, US and Canada.
The ASKAP radio telescope will be made up of 36 identical antennas, each 12 metres in diameter, working together as a single instrument.
The European Parliament has not made any specific announcement about the SKA project, but has spoken out in favour of closer cooperation with Africa in the field of radio astronomy, an area which it believes has the potential for enormous growth.
The written declaration promoting European-African radio partnership pointed to 'the essential role of science and technology for socio-economic transformation,' wrote Parliament Vice President Miguel Angel Martinez Martinez.