Earlier in the month, we reported a decisive turn in the fight to host the world’s largest radio telescope: a scientific panel backed South Africa over Australia for the project. In a closed-door meeting yesterday, the battle became even more intense. In a twist, Canada is now a full member of the SKA board and will have a vote on where the telescope goes.
The growing political rhetoric around the project is a “big concern”, says John Womersley, chairman of the SKA board and head of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. “We need to be sure that just because this process is political, it doesn’t become overly politicised,” he warns.
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a massive radio telescope made of 3,000 dishes each 15 metres in diameter. The telescope is designed to address some of the big questions about the early Universe, such as how the first galaxies came together. At US$2.1 billion to build, the project means both prestige and money to whomever can grab it.
The final decision will be made by the members of SKA that have made financial contributions to the project: the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, China, Italy and, as of yesterday, Canada. South Africa and Australia, as the two vying to host the telescope, do not get a vote.
South Africa narrowly won out in the scientific site selection, in part because of the low construction costs and high altitude of the site in the country’s north. But Australia, whose site has its own advantages, is not going to give up so easily. In a closed-door meeting yesterday in Manchester, members of the Australian delegation grilled the scientific panel on how they made their decision. The South Africans too had questions. The various issues discussed in the meeting have been passed on to SKA’s member states, who will consider them along with the original recommendation as they negotiate the final site decision.
Much of the deliberation is going on behind the scenes, but both sides are also making public appeals. Chris Evans, Australia’s science minister, recently told the Australian media: “We continue to argue we have the best bid, both in terms of the science and the capacity to deliver on the project.” Evans says that he has been lobbying Italy and China, two voting members of SKA’s board, to choose Australia over South Africa. Meanwhile, Naledi Pandor, the South African science minister, will be meeting with members of the European Parliament in Brussels tomorrow to make her case for partnerships between Europe and Africa.
Ultimately, the members of SKA who are not competing to host the site will choose. At yesterday’s meeting, Canada officially joined as a full member, although details have not yet been released. Norbert Bartel, the chairman of SKA’s Canadian scientific advisory committee and an astrophysicist at York University in Toronto, Ontario, confirmed Canada’s role in the project but declined to say which site the nation might side with.
The debate will now move to a full board meeting in the Netherlands on 3 April. It remains unclear whether the participants will choose a final site at that meeting or establish a more concrete process for site selection.
Womersley says that he remains hopeful that support for SKA can survive the battle over where to build it. Even after yesterday’s session, all sides found common ground. “At the end of the day people went out to dinner together,” he says.