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World's most powerful radio telescope to be shared by 3 nations

May 25, 2012 | 10:18 am

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REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South African politicians and scientists were jubilant Friday after a decision was announced to locate the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

But their joy was tinged with disappointment that South Africa's bid for the entire project did not succeed. The decision was nonetheless seen as a major boost for South African science.

"The SKA will transform our view of the universe; with it we will see back to the moments after the Big Bang and discover previously unexplored parts of the cosmos.” said Dr. Michiel van Haarlem, interim director general of the SKA Organization, in a statement after the announcement of the decision in Amsterdam.

The $2-billion project will involve several thousand high-, mid- and low-frequency receiving dishes set over a huge geographical area in remote areas where there is little interference from mobile phone, radio, television and other signals. Combining all the signals from the SKA will form the equivalent of a radio telescope with a one-square kilometer dish, and will be 50 times more sensitive than any in existence, according to the SKA Organization.

The likelihood of the sites remaining quiet radio zones in the future was a key factor in their choice. The South African location is in the Karoo, in the country's southwest. But dishes will be located across southern Africa and as far north as Ghana. The Australian location is a remote area of Western Australia with dishes to be located in other parts of the continent and in New Zealand.

According to the SKA Organization, astronomers will be able to  glimpse the formation and evolution of the first stars, and investigate the nature of gravity and whether there is life beyond Earth.

South African media had earlier been confident the entire project, which will be the world's most powerful radio telescope, would go to South Africa.

South African Minister for Science and Technology Naledi Pandor said Friday the decision to split the project was unexpected. She said experts on the SKA advisory committee had agreed Africa was the best site.

"We had hoped the unambiguous recommendation of the [advisory committee] would be accepted as the most sound scientific outcome," Pandor said in a statement Friday. "We accept the compromise in the interest of science and as acknowledgement of the sterling work done by our scientists and the excellent SKA project team."

The organization is a global science and engineering project including Britain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, China, Canada, the Netherlands and Italy, with India an associate member.

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-- Robyn Dixon  

Photo: An artist's impression shows satellite dishes of the future Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope. Credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions / AFP

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