SA ideal for SKA - Derek Hanekom
Kimberley - South Africa is well-placed to host the world's largest telescope because it would cost cheaper, according to the deputy science minister.
South Africa is competing with Australia to win the contract for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a multi-billion dollar instrument that will be 50 times more sensitive than today's most powerful radio telescopes.
The bid will be decided by February or March 2012, but the global economic crisis might give SA an advantage, said deputy science minister Derek Hanekom on a flight to the Karoo.
"The cost will probably escalate to $2bn" and funding countries were finding themselves stretched to come up with the cash, he told journalists.
"It's a big one, so that's why South Africa is a good place."
If SA wins the bidding, engineers will connect antennas in the arid Karoo region by remote link to a network of dishes stretching across southern and eastern Africa and as far away as Ghana.
Australia's bid puts the core site at Mileura station, about 100km west of Meekathara in western Australia. Other antennas would be distributed across Australia and New Zealand.
The SKA steering committee, which represents a consortium of 17 countries involved in the project, is expected to make the final decision.
But cheaper labour, construction and electricity also gave the country an advantage over Australia, said Justin Jonas, the engineer and astronomer who heads the project in the country.
"To go on site is also cheaper, you need just one hour to fly there [from Cape Town]. West Australia has a lot of mines and this is making cost of life very expensive."
Scientists hope the SKA, a massive new radio telescope linking over 3 000 antenna dishes, will shed new light on fundamental questions about the universe, including how it began, why it's expanding and whether it contains life beyond our planet.