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South Africa seeks help in bidding for Square Kilometer Array

         Date: 2012-02-27

           Tag: South Africa, South Africa Square Kilometer Array

Summary: The South African government is seeking help from BRICS members to win the bid for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world's largest telescope, authorities said on Thursday.

The South African government is seeking help from BRICS members to win the bid for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world's largest telescope, authorities said on Thursday.

As the largest radio telescope ever built, the SKA will be about 50-100 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope on earth. It's designed to probe the edges of our Universe and help scientists answer fundamental questions in astronomy, physics and cosmology, including the nature of dark energy and dark matter.

"Our mission is to further develop the already excellent relationship between the South African and Chinese governments, scientists and businesses, especially in light of the decision by the BRICS to make radio astronomy one of their main focus areas in Science and Technology," said Deputy Minister Derek Hanekom, who led the delegation.

BRICS is the geo-political formation promoting the interests and development of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

South Africa and Australia are the final bidders for the project following an initial identification of sites suitable for the SKA.

China has been a major player in the development of the SKA project and is a member of the Board of Directors of the SKA organization. The project will be constructed through a global collaboration of which China is part.

A decision on where the telescope will be built, either in South Africa or Australia/New Zealand, will be based on a technical evaluation report by a high level independent committee. The decision on selecting the site has been postponed from February to Apr. 4 this year.

To pave the way for winning the SKA, South Africa has already committed 300 million U.S. dollars to build the MeerKAT telescope, a precursor for the SKA. With 64 antennas, MeerKAT will be the most sensitive telescope in the Southern Hemisphere at centimeter wavelength.

Dr. Bernie Fanaroff, the Director of the SKA Project office of South Africa, said that China is a key player in the SKA, which is a truly global project.

"China is becoming a leader in radio astronomy and the FAST telescope being built by the National Astronomical Observatory of China will be a world class and very important instrument," said Fanaroff. "We look forward to China continuing to play a very important role in the SKA and to increasing collaboration between Chinese and South African astronomers and scientists in the other countries of the BRICS."

He said South Africa has established an outstanding site for SKA in the arid Karoo area in the country's Northern Cape Province. Eight other African nations partnered with South Africa to enter the bid.

"All nine countries collaborated excellently through the Africa Working Group to prepare Africa's bid, which was handed in to the SKA Organization in September 2011," he said.

The heads of state of the African Union have strongly and unanimously supported Africa's bid.

South African scientists have maintained that the country has an outstanding site for the SKA. The level of radio interference which could affect the telescope is amongst the lowest in the world. This has been proved from measurements by the Precision Array to Probe the Epoch of Re-ionization, which is a collaboration between the U.S. and South Africa as well as other measurements made by SKA South Africa.

Moreover, the South African site is protected by the world's strongest legislation, which prevents any transmissions or activities that could create interference with astronomy on the site. The good availability of electric power, optical fiber networks and roads significantly reduces the cost of building SKA in Southern Africa. Climatic conditions and the troposphere above the site are very good for astronomy, experts said.

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