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Blow for Australian SKA bid?

Square Kilometre Array

Artist’s impression of the proposed Square Kilometre Array site in Austrialia (Courtesy: Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

By Michael Banks

Is southern Africa a step nearer to hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)? That is what an unconfirmed report in the Sydney Morning Herald is suggesting.

SKA, costing €1.5bn, is a massive next-generation radio-astronomy facility consisting of around 2000–3000 linked antennas that will probe the first 100 million years after the Big Bang for clues about galaxy evolution, dark matter and dark energy. Two rival bids are going head to head to host the telescope: one led by Australia and the other by South Africa.

Last month, an independent SKA site advisory committee sent its evaluation report and site-selection recommendation to SKA’s board of directors. The report was not published and only a vague press release was issued stating that a recommendation had been made. Since then, members of SKA have been tight-lipped about which bid may have got the thumbs up from the committee.

However, according to the report today in the Sydney Morning Herald, the site advisory committee has opted for southern Africa. “Australia, in a joint bid with New Zealand, has failed to convince an expert panel it offers a superior location for the project,” the report says.

Indeed, the rumour mill for a winning southern Africa bid was already set in motion late last month when African ambassadors meeting in Beijing issued a statement calling on the SKA organization to build the telescope “on the site recommended by the independent SKA site advisory committee”. The statement inferred that the South Africa-led bid had won the recommendation of the site committee. However, within a few hours of being posted on the press site AlphaGalileo the statement was taken down.

That is not the only recent SKA-related incident. A few days after the withdrawal of the press release, a server managing documents for SKA was apparently breached. However, according to Colin Greenwood, company secretary of the SKA Organisation, only “links to publicly available documents, such as the SKA research papers, were affected”.

The site advisory committee does not have the final say in where SKA will be sited. That will come when the seven members of the SKA organization – which includes China, Italy and the UK – meet in “late March or early April” to consider the report’s conclusions and make a decision about the location of the site. Only by then will we know for sure whether SKA is heading to southern Africa.

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