South Africa has submitted its bid documents to host the €1.5-billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s most powerful radio telescope – arguably the country’s most important contest since its successful bid to host the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
The final documents supporting the SA-led African bid – South Africa’s response to a request for information issued by the international SKA Siting Group in June 2011 – were submitted ahead of Thursday’s deadline.
South Africa, allied with eight other African countries, is competing against Australia (allied with New Zealand) to host the SKA, an instrument 50-100 times more sensitive and 10 000 times faster than any radio imaging telescope yet built.
The international science funding agencies and governments involved in the international SKA consortium are due to announce the winning bidder in 2012, with construction likely to start in 2016 and take place in phases over several years, with completion by about 2022.
More than 70 institutes in 20 countries, together with industry partners, are participating in the scientific and technical design of the SKA telescope, which will be located either in Australia and New Zealand or in southern Africa extending to the Indian Ocean Islands.
SKA South Africa director Bernie Fanaroff said this week that if Africa was to fulfil its potential as the next great economic growth destination, it needed large scientific projects such as the Square Kilometre Array.
The design, construction and operation of the telescope will have a potentially massive impact on skills development in science, engineering and associated industries, not only in the host countries but in all project partner countries.
The SKA project will drive technology development in antennas, fibre networks, signal processing, and software and computing, with spin-off innovations in these areas set to benefit other systems that process large volumes of data.
Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement on Friday that Africa would “provide a home for the SKA to do revolutionary science”, describing SA’s proposal as “strong, cost-effective and robust”.
South Africa’s proposed site for the core of the SKA – the remote, radio-”quiet” Karoo region of the country’s Northern Cape province – was “orders of magnitude better than any existing observatory, and is protected by the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act,” Pandor said.
“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 leading US institutions.
“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.”
South Africa’s progress in building the Karoo Array Telescope (also known as the MeerKAT), an 80-dish precursor instrument for the SKA, “has won us many friends and has changed the way the international community sees us,” Pandor added.
“Many leading international researchers are now taking up full or part-time positions in our universities and the MeerKAT team.
“We are fully committed to the SKA, and so are our partners in Africa,” Pandor said. “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”.
According to the Department of Science and Technology, the bid reports will be evaluated by expert panels and considered by an independent SKA Science Advisory Committee of leading international scientists and science administrators. They may ask for further information or clarification from either of the bidders.
SKA South Africa project representatives will meet this committee in the US in December. 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 15 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.
The department said that South Africa’s bid documents, covering a massive range of information – from measurements of radio frequency interference to working conditions for a highly skilled workforce of scientists and engineers – represented eight years of work.
The South African SKA team “has worked closely with telecommunication service providers including Broadband InfraCo, Meraka, Nokia Siemens Networks, Seacom, FibreCo, Muvoni Weltex, EASSY, SIA Solutions and Cisco, and with Eskom, the City of Cape Town and Aurecon to come up with robust and cost-effective data transport, power and infrastructure proposals for the telescope.”
The team had also received support from the Independent Communications Authority of SA, Sentech, the Departments of Communications and Public Enterprises, mobile providers Vodacom and MTN, and the National Association of Broadcasters, in designing solutions to reduce radio interference on the SKA site while still providing services to people in the area.
“A great deal of support was also received from the SA Revenue Service, the Reserve Bank, Southern Mapping Geospatial, the HSRC, the Centre for High Performance Computing, the Council for Geosciences, the SA Weather Service, and many other government departments and service providers in preparing the bid reports.”