SKA decision in February


A decision on the host site for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope will be made in February.

It is a €1.5 billion global science project to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, and SA is bidding against Australia to host the central core of the telescope.

However, the Department of Science and Technology says it will provide €4 million for the pre-construction phase of the project, even if SA does not win the bid.

The founding board of the SKA says the final decision on the location is expected to be made in February 2012 by the SKA board of directors.
“The technical assessment and evaluation phase of the site selection process is being overseen by the SKA Siting Group, which reports to the SKA founding board.”

The board adds that the first step in this phase is information gathering, where the candidate sites will make submissions covering science and technical factors; other factors including legal, customs and security; and plans and costs of implementing infrastructure, including power supply and distribution.

The SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC), which consists of appointed independent experts, will make a recommendation on the preferred site based on reports from expert panels and consultants together with the submissions from the candidate sites.

Selection factors that will be considered in the decision-making process will include levels of radio frequency interference, the long-term sustainability of a radio quiet zone, the physical characteristics of the site, data network connectivity across the vast distances covered by the telescope, as well as operating and infrastructure costs.

The founding board says information submitted by candidates will be analysed by consultants by November and evaluated by the SSAC by December. The SKA board of directors will receive the final report and recommendation by February, and make a decision in the same month.

Science and technology minister Naledi Pandor has emphasised SA’s firm commitment to the project.
“In this regard, I can announce that irrespective of the outcome of the site selection, we will provide €4 million for the funding of the SKA Project Office and its operations during the pre-construction phase.
“In addition, we also stand ready to make substantial local contributions to the various pre-construction work packages. Our commitment to the SKA is firm and steadfast.”

The minister also emphasised the critical urgency of taking the project beyond conception to practical action. “We are keen to move into the design and implementation phase.”
“We have chosen an exceptionally good site for the SKA in a remote region of SA, a region with very little economic activity.”

Pandor says SA is unique in having provided statutory protection for the site through the Geographic Astronomy Advantage Act, which covers existing activities and transmissions, not only new ones.
“Vodacom, a subsidiary of Vodafone, has at its own cost developed new technology to significantly reduce any impact of GSM signals in the area.”

The site has been connected to the national power grid and to the national optical fibre backbone.
“The networks are scalable and some are now ‘SKA-ready’. We are collaborating with our national Department of Energy, our Electricity Supply Commission, and German and Chinese agencies to provide renewable energy to the MeerKAT and the SKA.

The SKA will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope.

The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre, giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10 000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes.
“With thousands of receptors extending out to distances of 3 000km from the centre of the telescope, the SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our universe, including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how galaxies have evolved since then, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth,” says the founding board.

It adds that construction could start as early as 2016.