Split SKA still an ego boost for SA

Business Day – Editorial

IT IS a measure of SA’S tender national ego that the Square Kilometre Array

(SKA) radio telescope project developed a sense of national competition somewhat akin to winning the right to hold an international sporting tournament. Even after the announcement this weekend that SA will share the project – one of biggest science projects in history – with a bid from Australia and New Zealand, South African commentators were still quick to point out that most of the equipment would be situated here.

But, in fact, the decision to have joint hosts is, on reflection, a good compromise. It spreads the financial risk and benefits inclusion, something obviously important for the 20 or so countries that are stumping up the R15bn to build the array of radio telescopes. Most important, it’s also good for science, and presumably will help ensure that no one country gets too chauvinistic about whatever the project discovers.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor was gracious in accepting this outcome, although obviously timing the announcement for Africa Day meant the team was hoping for a more complete victory. As it is, Ms Pandor said, the country would accept the compromise in the interest of science, despite making it clear that the decision to split the project was unexpected.

In Australia, the bid was fought in an atmosphere much less permeated with the fickle requirements of national pride. National newspapers there blamed the mining boom in Australia for pushing up construction prices for the split decision, and it is true that the South African bid was cheaper. But, all in all, it wasn’t a front-page event in the same way it is being seen here.

As this newspaper pointed out yesterday, the great achievement of the local bid team was to build a scientifically credible case given that many other countries, Australia included, have been participating in this field more aggressively for much longer.

SA’S weaknesses all have to do with notional political stability, which is obviously something about which the scientific team could do nothing.

Importantly, as the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out yesterday, splitting the project will not mean that half the telescope will be built in Australia and the other half here. Both sites will have a full square kilometre of collecting area, with who collects what playing to the strengths of each site. SA will host the mid-frequency array, while the low-frequency and survey array data will be collected in Australia. In the second phase of the project, it will also collect something called the aperture arrays.

So what will this thing do? What may it discover?

It is an extraordinary project. The SKA will be 50 times larger than any existing radio telescope. It could help solve some of the biggest questions that remain in astrophysics, including whether Albert Einstein’s predictions about gravity were, in fact, correct.

It could also – and this is pretty weird – discover whether life exists on other planets. The reason it could make a real contribution here is that, at the moment, astronomers survey the sky section by section. The biggest existing single-dish telescope, the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico, needs three years to survey the entire galaxy. The SKA could do it overnight.

Overall, it’s a fabulous project, and it’s fantastic that a big slice of it will be located in this country, particularly since SA is paying only a slice of the total purchase price.

This is a good thing since the purchase prices is going to be pretty astronomical – about R200bn over the next 50 years. Construction will also start only in 2016, so this is unlikely to be an immediate huge drain on the fiscus.

The universe, it appears, will be around long enough to endure some scientific arm-wrestling and an earth-styled construction delay or two

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