After weeks of speculation, members of the Square Kilometre Array(SKA) Organisation have announced that South Africa and Australia will jointly host the world’s largest radio telescope.
"We have decided on a dual site approach," said SKA board chairperson John Wommersley at a press conference held at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, following a meeting of the SKA organisation's members in the Dutch capital.
This follows a meeting of the members at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, after weeks of waiting and speculation regarding the final outcome of the hosting bid, which came down to two rivals, South Africa and Australia.
Science and technology minister Naledi Pandor was visibly elated by the outcome.
"We did it," she said. "Africa has won."
Despite the fact that the SKA is to be hosted jointly, Africa will get the lion's share of the instrument, with two-thirds of the components located across Southern Africa and the remaining third in Australia.
"We accept this compromise in the interest of science," Pandor said.
She added that the decision was made possible by the "sterling" work - nine years' worth - by the entire SKA team.
Prof Justin Jonas, SKA associate director for science and engineering, was just as thrilled. "Two-thirds of the world's largest scientific instrument is still the world's largest scientific instrument," he said.
Jonas explained that Africa would host all of the mid-frequency receptors - the dishes - while Australia would get the low-frequency receptors, which look similar to television antennae and are unable to swivel.
He emphasised that although the split may affect the cost of building the SKA, it wouldn't compromise the science.
"The decision shows that South Africa is still recognised as the better site," said Pandor, alluding to unsubstantiated reports in the Australian press some weeks ago that reported that the SKA site advisory committee had recommended South Africa as the preferred site.
For video footage of the announcement by Pandor, visit the South African government's YouTube channel.
Skills development and exchange of ideas
Brand South Africa was among the first to congratulate the South African SKA bid team, and Pandor and her department.
Brand SA CEO, Miller Matola, said that South Africa is thrilled with the opportunity to share the hosting of the SKA as the partnership with Australia will open up new avenues for skills development as well as ideas and cultural exchange.
"The SKA will bring advancements of astro-sciences to both countries and facilitate knowledge sharing between young and older astronomy and cosmology experts," he said.
"The opportunity to share the SKA with Australia will also highlight the benefits of partnerships on a global scale, and will improve industry cohesion and co-development in astronomy and other related fields."
In addition to the SKA, South Africa’s plans to focus on developing the field of astronomy will be enhanced by the MeerKAT project in the Northern Cape.
The MeerKAT is a powerful scientific tool in its own right and it will attract the best scientists and engineers to work in Africa and will provide unrivalled opportunities for scientists and engineers across the continent and the country.
Matola added that the building of the MeerKAT will also spearhead the Department of Science and Technology’s campaign to introduce astronomy to scholars and students across the country, and develop and retain human capital in the field of science and engineering.
"We thank the bid committee for giving us and our African partners the platform to bring the stars and the universe closer to the leaders and explorers of tomorrow," he said.
"SKA funding and infrastructure will encourage our scholars and students to take up science and technology subjects, and a new class of scientists will be developed. The SKA will showcase the innovation from African communities and will embolden career interest in the diverse field of physics and cosmology."
The announcement was initially expected early in April but was delayed. Various reasons were given for the delay, such as a number of objections raised by the Australian organisation that had to be resolved.
Members of the SKA Organisation then agreed that it was necessary to set up a small scientific working group to explore various 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 findings of the working group would decide the final outcome.
The SKA in South Africa will be located mainly in the Northern Cape province, in an area protected by legislation from development that could interfere with the reception of radio waves from space.
It will comprise about 3 000 dish-shaped antennae spread over many thousands of square kilometres. The core of the telescope will lie in the Northern Cape’s Karoo region, with outlying stations spread throughout South Africa, and in Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya, Madagascar and Mauritius.
The instrument, which will be the world’s largest radio telescope, is expected to be complete in 2024.
Driving scientific development in Southern Africa
In South Africa scientists and engineers have been hard at work for a number of years in preparation for the SKA.
Already an array of seven radio telescopes, the KAT-7, is online at the Northern Cape site and bringing in valuable imagery from far-flung corners of the universe. The KAT-7 is the MeerKAT precursor.
When complete, MeerKAT will be the biggest radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. Although it’s only due to become operational in 2012, the first five years of MeerKAT research time are fully booked, with astronomers queuing up to work on this important instrument
The team’s goal is to complete 15 MeerKAT antennae by 2015.
To date, R55-million (US$7-million) has been spent on developing the skills needed for SKA, with 398 postdoctoral fellowships, PhD, MSc and undergraduate bursaries given to deserving candidates.
An extensive bursary programme has seen hundreds of university students becoming interested in space science and engineering as a career, and, said Pandor, even more encouraging is that many of these are black students and women.
• Slideshow image courtesy of Square Kilometre Array Organisation