South Africa submits final bid to host Square Kilometre Array radio telescope

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South Africa yesterday submitted its final bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope. The SKA committee will early next year announce whether South Africa or Australia has the winning bid.

“Africa will provide a home for the SKA to do revolutionary science. Our bid is a strong, cost-effective and robust proposal for building the Square Kilometre Array in Africa,” said Minister for Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor.

The Department of Science and Technology said that the reports submitted yesterday cover a wide range of information, such as radio frequency interference at the site, infrastructure, the performance of the array, staff requirements and so on. The South African SKA team worked closely with dozens of organisations over eight years to prepare the documents.

South Africa first expressed interest in hosting the SKA in 2003. The African SKA site bid is led by South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology and includes Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zambia, Mauritius, Kenya and Ghana.
“Our site is orders of magnitude better than any existing observatory and is protected by the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act,” Pandor said. “Our team, with business and industry, has developed excellent solutions for how to provide power, data transport and infrastructure for the telescope very cost effectively. The great progress we have made in building the MeerKAT telescope has won us many friends and has changed the way the international community sees us”.

Pandor further added, “Many leading international researchers are now taking up full or part-time positions in our universities and the MeerKAT team. Our Human Capital Programme has won respect around the world. The excellence of our site has been recognised by the construction and operation of the world-leading PAPER and CBASS telescopes on our site, in which we are collaborating with the leading US institutions.
“We are fully committed to the SKA and so are our partners in Africa. Building world-leading science instruments and research in Africa will help us to create the skills, innovation and technology which will underpin our long-term vision for Africa as a leading economic power-house”.
“We don’t know what the Australians are putting in, but we’ve put in a strong bid,” SKA SA project manager Bernie Fanaroff told ITWeb.

He adds that it’s difficult to know who will win, or to feel confident at this point, because there is no idea as to what the Australian team is submitting and how it compares to SA’s.

After the submission, the bid reports will be evaluated by expert panels and considered by an independent SKA Science Advisory Committee, which may ask for further information or clarification from South Africa and Australia (which has partnered with New Zealand).

SKA South Africa project office representatives will meet this committee in the USA in December. If there are sufficient differences between the two bids, the Committee will aim to make a recommendation on a site by January 2012. Its recommendation will go to the not-for-profit SKA company which will be established in November, with about fifteen governments as its members. They will consider the recommendation and any other factors they wish to take into account and aim to make a decision by February or March 2012. Construction is scheduled to start around 2016.

The SKA is a mega-telescope that is about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope.

The SKA will consist of approximately 3 000 dish-shaped antennae and other hybrid receiving technologies that will be spread over a vast area of up to 3 000km.

Research areas will include observational radio astronomy, radio astronomy instrumentation, digital signal processing, distributed data processing and RF broadband feeds, receivers and cryogenic packages.

The SKA is set to cost €1.5 billion and will earn its host about €200 million a year for 20 to 30 years in expenses related to operations and maintenance, Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor said last November.

South Africa has spent billions of rands on the SKA bid – Cabinet in 2009 approved a R1.6 billion budget to win the right to host the instrument. This included the construction of two demonstrator instruments, including the KAT-7 and a larger MeerKAT of some 65 dishes. Construction of the KAT-7 began in July 2009 and was completed in January 2010. MeerKAT is scheduled for commission in 2013 at a cost of R860 million.