Africa bids to host mega radio telescope

CARNARVON, South Africa (Reuters) - Africa stands a good chance of beating Australia in a race to host the world’s most powerful radio telescope able to peer back billions of years in time, a South African minister said on Tuesday.

An international panel is expected to announce the winner from the two shortlisted continents in 2012, enabling the victor to host the 1.5 billion euro Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, which will be 50 times more sensitive and 10,000 times faster than any other radio imaging telescope built.

“It is a huge endeavor we are undertaking,” Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of science and technology, said at the Northern Cape location identified as the core site for the new telescope if the African bid succeeds.

“We believe we have a good chance of being successful,” she said. “SKA represents an unprecedented opportunity for the development of scientific and technological skills and expertise in Africa.”

The SKA telescope would eventually consist of about 3,000 antennas, half of them concentrated at the main site on the outskirts of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, with the rest distributed in Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Ghana, Mauritius, Madagascar, Kenya and Zambia.

Already at Carnarvon, chosen because of minimal interference from cell phones or broadcast transmitters, South Africa has built the first seven antennas of its Karoo Array Telescope.

“The SKA will look back into the beginnings of the universe, over 12 billion years ago, when galaxies started to form out of the Big Bang. We will be able to study the evolution of the universe,” project scientist Deborah Shepherd told Reuters.

The SKA telescope will also be able to scan for alien life in distant galaxies, shed light on so-called “dark energy” which is causing the universe to expand, and probe the first black holes and stars. SKA is expected to be fully operational by 2022 with an expected lifespan of at least 50 years.

Shepherd said data from SKA could be used together with studies at the CERN super-collider project, where sub-atomic particles are being smashed to recreate conditions that gave rise to the universe 13.7 billion years ago.

Pandor said South Africa had allocated 234 million rand ($32 million) for two stages of building at the Karoo site, and had international funding commitments for the larger SKA project.

“The U.S. has indicated that it might provide 40 percent of the total (1.5 bln euro) cost, while ... France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom will together provide another 40 percent,” she said.

Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Dominic Evans;