May 25, 2012
The location of a huge radio telescope strong enough to detect extraterrestrial life in the far reaches of the universe could be settled on Friday when the group in charge of the project meets in the Netherlands.
When completed in 2024 the “Square Kilometer Array” (SKA) will be made up of 3,000 dishes, each 15 meters wide, together with many more antennae, that will stretch over 3,000 km (1,864 miles).
Scanning the sky 10,000 times faster and with 50 times the sensitivity of any other telescope, it will be used to study the origins of the universe and will be able to detect weak signals that could indicate the presence of extraterrestrial life.
A joint bid between Australia and New Zealand to host the telescope is pitted against South Africa for a $2 billion project that will bestow an economic boost and major scientific prestige on the winner.
The lobbying has been intense and at times acrimonious, with the Australians raising concerns about the security of such an expensive project in South Africa, which suffers from high rates of violent crime. South Africa has accused the other side of dirty tricks and selectively leaking data to boost its bid in what are supposed to be secret deliberations.
The project could now be split between the two bidders. In March, a science panel gave a marginal preference to South Africa but after intense lobbying from both bidders the decision was delayed and a group of experts was set up to examine the scientific and cost implications of a split location.
That group will report back to the consortium May 25 but scientists say a split location would almost certainly add to the bill.
Radio telescopes work best in remote locations away from interference from other radio signals, hence the decision to site this one in the more sparsely-populated southern hemisphere.