Pretoria — South Africa and Australia are to share the hosting of the most advanced scientific project in the world - the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.
This was announced by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor in Pretoria this afternoon. The decision as to who would host the SKA was made by members of the SKA Organisation at its meeting in Netherlands earlier today. South Africa and Australia - whose bid included New Zealand - were the last countries in the running to host the telescope.
"After nine years of work by the South African and Australian SKA site bid teams, the independent SKA Site Advisory Committee, composed of world-renowned experts, carried out an objective technical and scientific assessment of the sites in South Africa and Australia, and identified by consensus Africa as the preferred site.
"However, in order to be inclusive, the SKA Organisation has agreed to consider constructing on of the three SKA receiver components in Australia. Two will be constructed in Africa," said the minister.
She explained that the meeting of the members had decided to split the project which is an unexpected decision given the search for a single site.
"We had hoped the unambiguous recommendation of the SSAC would be accepted as the most sound scientific outcome."
She said that South Africa accepted the compromise in the interest of science and thanked the South African SKA team and scientists that had done sterling work over the past years.
The SKA will consist of about 3 000 dish-shaped antennae spread over a wide area. South Africa was expected to build the telescope in the Karoo in the Northern Cape, while the joint site spreads from the Murchison Shire in Western Australia's Mid-West region to the top of New Zealand's South Island.
Building was expected to start around 2016 and the telescope will be completed by 2024. It should be ready to do early science in 2020.
The SKA Organisation delayed announcing its preferred site in April after it was agreed that a small scientific working group should explore possible implementation options that would ensure that there was an inclusive approach to SKA, as well as maximise the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions.
The working group was expected to report back to the members this month. The report was expected to provide additional information to facilitate the site decision for SKA.
Scientists are expected to use the SKA to search the universe for answers about how stars and galaxies are formed and how galaxies and the universe have evolved over the past 14 billion years.
Hosting the project is expected to bring huge investments and opportunities, as well as give science and engineering a major boost.
In South Africa, the MeerKAT array is currently taking shape in South Africa's Karoo region. It is a world-class radio telescope designed to do ground-breaking science. It will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until the SKA is completed.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) is a new radio telescope that will provide an important testbed for SKA technology as well as being a world-leading telescope in its own right.