SKA split between SA and Australia

2012-05-26 08:12

South Africa’s prestigious astronomy dream, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project has been split between South Africa and Australasia, with South Africa getting the lion’s share.

The decision was announced at a meeting of the international consortium controlling the project at Schipol Airport in the Netherlands yesterday.

Despite South Africa being listed as the preferred site, the SKA decided to divide the multi-billion rand project between South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

But South Africa still has the biggest share, as two-thirds of the project will be hosted here. South Africa has competed against Australia for the past six years for the honour of hosting the SKA, one of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes.

“In our view it’s an unexpected decision,” said elated Science Minister Naledi Pandor at a press conference in Pretoria. She emphasised that this was still a victory for South Africa. She joked that she much preferred this announcement to the task of announcing the matric results as former education minister.

“We had hoped for an outright win, because we were unambiguously appointed as the preferred bidder,” she said.

SKA: a brief guide

But the decision didn’t come as a total surprise, despite South Africa’s status as preferred bidder. Australia had launched an intensive lobbying initiative at the beginning of the month after it emerged that South Africa would be the possible all-out winner.

Since then rumours have been circulating that the SKA Organisation was considering a “win-win scenario” because both bidders had invested too much in the process.

As a result of Australia’s lobbying, a committee to investigate what it called a “more inclusive approach” to benefit both bidders was formed. And this committee recommended that the project be split.

She said she had not spoken to her Australian counterpart, Chris Evans.

“I will probably write him a nice note when I’ve calmed down, when I’ve stopped celebrating,” she said.

“We are slightly disappointed,” said professor Justin Jonas, associate director for science and engineering at the SKA South Africa Project.

“But we must emphasise that we did the get the majority of this telescope.”

He said this was a turning point for Africa and that continent was becoming an engineering hub, not just place where there are resources to be exploited.

“We must realise how big this is,” he said. “Two-thirds of the instrument in the world is still the biggest in the world.”

He said the split in no way compromised the science, although there will be added costs. Construction is expected to start next year and will last till 2025.

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