Southern Africa is taking on Australia in a bid to become home to a massive network of radio telescopes designed to answer fundamental questions about the evolution of the universe. Vastly more sensitive than the world’s best existing radio telescopes, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be one of the largest and most ambitious international science projects ever devised.
The bid has been long in the making, with South Africa hiring the best brains on the continent. But the scientists were reportedly sent back to the drawing board, amid fears that South Africa and Australia may have to share the ambitious project.
In a brief statement released to the media, the SKA Board said they wanted to maintain “an inclusive approach” to the radio telescope project. The statement said it recognised the “massive investments made by both host countries” and a small scientific working group will now be set-up to explore the possibility of a win-win situation.
At about 50 – 100 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope on the planet, the SKA will be able to probe the edges of the universe. Scientists say it would also help them to answer “questions in astronomy, physics and cosmology, including the nature of dark energy and dark matter”.
It will also be a powerful time machine that scientists will use to go back in time to explore the origins of the first galaxies, stars and planets. If there is life somewhere else in the universe, the SKA will help scientists find it. The SKA will consist of about 3 000 dish-shaped antennae spread over a wide area.
The construction of the SKA is expected to cost about €1.5 bn. The international SKA consortium is expected to spend approximately €100 to €150 million a year on the telescope and is expected that a significant portion of the capital, operations and maintenance costs would be spent in the host country.
It is expected that construction could start by 2016. Both Australia and South Africa have previously rejected the possibility of a joint bid and the working group will now report back next month, when a final decision on who gets to host the SKA is expected.
The final decision lies with SKA members China, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Canada.
Here are some video reports on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.