SKA decision likely delayed - Pandor

2012-03-29 19:09

Johannesburg - A decision on whether South Africa or Australia has won the bid to host the core site for the world's largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), is "likely to be delayed", Science Minister Naledi Pandor confirmed on Thursday.

Briefing the media in Johannesburg, less than a week before members of the SKA organisation are set to meet on the matter, she said South Africa would, however, push for a speedy decision.

"The SA team will make it clear: we want a decision," Pandor told journalists.

Members of the SKA organisation will sit on Wednesday next week to start the process of deciding which of the two countries has won the bid.

"The anticipated date for a final decision is April 4, although this is likely to be delayed as members of the SKA organisation consider the final site decision," Pandor said.

The chair of the SKA founding board, John Womersley, was reported last week as saying: "It is not likely that this meeting will make a final decision on the site; rather it will be the start of a process of discussion and negotiation between the members."

On Thursday, science and technology department director general Phil Mjwara said the SKA board would first have to settle two outstanding technical and scientific matters raised by Australia and that country's bid partner, New Zealand.

"If our optimism is correct [and this is decided]... then the board will probably discuss how to make the announcement; if not, I think then they will discuss how to handle it going forward," he said.

Last week, the SKA site advisory committee (SSAC) handed over its recommendation on which of the two countries is better scientifically and technically suited to host the core site for the €3.5bn telescope.

Insulted SA

Information leaked to the media earlier this month suggests that the committee, which conducted its assessments earlier this year, has recommended the project be awarded to South Africa.

The five SKA member countries that will take the final decision are Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

In a statement handed to journalists at the briefing, Pandor said attempts by Australia to "diminish" the scientific and technical merits of Southern Africa's bid to become the site for the SKA were insulting.

She said that according to media reports, Australian politicians had, in the wake of the panel's recommendation, "engaged in a series of political lobbying visits to various countries which will vote on the site".

This was done in an attempt to "diminish Southern Africa's scientific superiority in the bid and ignoring the reported recommendation of the SSAC based on scientific and technical criteria".

This had involved "insultingly saying that the decision can only go to Africa as a result of 'the European view which says we ought to be doing more development in Africa'."

This was a "not very subtle attempt" to undermine the scientific and technical rigour of the site adjudication process, "by suggesting that the reported superiority of the SA bid was nothing more than a 'sympathy' decision", she said.

SKA SA project director Bernie Fanaroff said next week's meeting was likely to be an "inclusive" process.

Inclusive

"All the countries which are members of the SKA organisation have an interest in how the organisation will operate.

"So I think there will be a process of discussion around how the SKA will be established; where it will be; where the science centres will be; where the head office will be; and, how to operate to the benefit of all of the member countries," he said.

Pandor also announced on Thursday that Angola planned to join the SKA project.

"We heard this week that... Angola intends to apply to become a full member of the SKA project," she said.

South Africa has partnered with Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia to host the 3 000 antenna that will make up the SKA.

Half of these will be located in a five-kilometre diameter central region in the Karoo, while the rest will be spread up to 3 000km from this central concentration.

South Africa winning the bid for the SKA - one of the world's biggest science projects - will provide a huge boost for the country's economy, especially in the construction, engineering, and IT sectors.

- SAPA
Read more on:    ska  |  naledi pandor  |  astronomy  |  science
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