NCOP to pass AGA Bill

Johannesburg, 13 Nov 2007

The National Council of Province`s (NCOP) Education and Recreation Select Committee has approved the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Bill, with minor amendments.

The Bill is key to South Africa winning a multibillion-rand bid to host and help build the planet`s largest radio telescope.

The draft law will now go before the full NCOP - Parliament`s upper chamber - for approval, before being sent to president Thabo Mbeki for his signature and promulgation.

Once in effect, the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act will declare a portion of the Northern Cape a radio frequency (RF) reserve to clear the way for the 1.3 billion euro Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

A site for the SKA, and its precursor, the Meerkat, has been identified to the northwest of Carnarvon, in the Northern Cape.

The Bill has had a speedy passage through the lawmaking body. It was introduced to the National Assembly in May and was subsequently passed by the lower house of Parliament.

Last month, state transport utility Transnet expressed some concern about the law. Its freight rail legal advisor Fortune Legoabe told the committee that the proposed RF restriction would impact on the company`s rail and freight activities. The SKA RF reserve overlaps a number of railway lines where RF technology is used.

Science and technology minister Mosibudi Mangena last year said SA would greatly benefit if chosen to host the telescope. It was short-listed with Australia, in September last year, by the international SKA steering committee. This followed advice from an external committee of seven scientists, from five countries, who evaluated four site bids.

"SA stands to gain tremendously if chosen. The telescope is budgeted to cost one billion euros to build and about 150 million euros for operations per year. A significant part of both capital and operating costs is likely to be spent in SA and southern Africa," said Mangena at the time.

The SKA is a set of thousands of antennae, spread over 3 000km, with half concentrated in a central region 5km across. It will be the biggest radio telescope built and will be 50 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope.

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