The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is the next big thing for radio astronomy, and the site of the future radio array was announced yesterday.
Both South Africa and Australia had been contenders for the SKA since 2005, but the majority vote of the SKA Organisation decided that it should split between the two. The meeting took place at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam yesterday, with the voting members being from countries who had not put in a bid to host the array.
Australia is in partnership with New Zealand, and South Africa is in partnership with Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. UK institutes will also be involved in the design phase of the SKA, as well as operations at the SKA Project Office at Jodrell Bank Observatory, thanks to funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
“This hugely important step for the project allows us to progress the design and prepare for the construction phase of the telescope.” said Michiel van Haarlem, Interim Director General of the SKA Organisation. “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.”
Sharing the array will ensure that the investments already made on both sides won’t go to waste, as well as drawing on the expertise already in existence in both countries. The Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) and South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope will be incorporated into the SKA during Phase I of construction, which begins in 2016.
Most of the dishes for Phase I will be situated in South Africa. Phase II will see the remaining dishes and the mid frequency aperture array being constructed in South Africa. The low frequency aperture array will be built in Australia during Phase I and II.
“This model for splitting the SKA closely follows the workings of other observatories around the world; often separate instruments will survey the sky and inform where another telescope should look closer,” said Peter Quinn, director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Australia. “As an international centre, we’re eager to continue our work with colleagues in Africa and the rest of the world to build the SKA and use it to explore the Universe in 10,000 times more detail than ever before.”
The decision of which site to choose was based on how radio quiet the areas are, and if this is likely to remain the case, as well asoperating and infrastructure costs. The SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC) has issued a report saying that both the South African and Australian sites had their benefits, but were in favour of the SKA being constructed solely in South Africa. This report was taken into account by the SKA Organisation.
A statement issued by Ministerial Spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele for the South African Ministry of Science and Technology expressed their surprise at the decision.
“A meeting of the members has decided to split the project which is an unexpected decision given the search for a single site. We had hoped the unambiguous recommendation of the SSAC would be accepted as the most sound scientific outcome. 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 SKA will be used to decipher mysteries of the Universe such as how the earliest stars and galaxies formed, as well as investigate the nature of gravity. The SKA will be the largest radio telescope in the world when it is complete, as well as being 50 times more sensitive than anything in existence today.
“The SKA will be one of the top global science projects of the 21st century,” said Richard Schilizzi, Head of the SKA Group in the University of Manchester. “The findings of this project will benefit many other areas, such as information and communication technologies (ICT), wireless communication, sensor technology and renewable energy.”