SKA race hots up

By Leon Engelbrecht, ITWeb senior writer
Johannesburg, 17 Apr 2008

The race between sporting rivals SA and Australia to host the $1.6 billion (R12.4 billion) square kilometre array (SKA) radio telescope is hotting up as scientists and engineers get down to finalising a detailed, costed technical design.

SA has proposed a site near Carnarvon, in the Northern Cape, for the SKA should it win the bid. Government is using the project as one justification for creating the Broadband Infraco. Australia is punting a site near Alice Springs in the middle of the giant island-continent.

A conference in Australia last week authorised a 22 million euro (R273 million), three-year preparatory phase project, "PrepSKA". It will draw together international efforts from around the world to finalise a detailed, costed technical design and develop the governance and legal framework for the project.

PrepSKA will also conduct additional studies of the short-listed sites. Once PrepSKA is complete, there should be an agreed design for the largest array of radio antennas ever built, allowing interested countries to decide on their involvement with the final SKA project.

The UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is coordinating PrepSKA and has appointed professor Phil Diamond, of the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Centre, for astrophysics, to lead this activity.

Diamond says PrepSKA "is an extremely important programme of work to pave the way for construction of the SKA. The SKA will take us on an incredible journey of scientific discovery; PrepSKA is the final planning phase, checking our route and making sure everyone has their passport."

The collaboration involves 24 organisations from 12 countries, including SA, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK and the US.

STFC director of science programmes professor John Womersley says the SKA "has the potential to be one of the most exciting global endeavours in science, changing the way radio astronomy is done. The PrepSKA project is a vital preparation stage that will allow the interested partners to bring together their different approaches and priorities, and lay the groundwork for a world-class programme."

Work on the SKA is due to start in 2013, subject to successful funding proposals.

The SKA will be constructed in a phased manner over seven years. Operations will start in 2015 - provided a significant portion of the array has been commissioned.

The array will consist of about 4 000 antennas with a total collecting area of a square kilometre grouped into 200 "stations" spread over some 3 000km. Several local companies and institutions, including IST, the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory and Dr Bernie Fanaroff's SKA Project Office, are already working on the programme, which government has labelled as being of strategic importance.

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