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Split decision for SKA?


Artist’s impression of the dishes for the €1.5bn Square Kilometre Array.
(Courtesy: SPDO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

By Michael Banks

A decision on who will build the €1.5bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will have to wait after the SKA Organisation announced yesterday that no outcome had been achieved.

SKA 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.

The eight members of the SKA Organisation – including China, Italy and the UK – have the final say in who will host the telescope. They met yesterday at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport in the Netherlands to discuss the site selection advisory committee’s report, which according to leaks suggested that southern Africa had got the nod.

After the meeting the SKA Organisation issued a press release that gave no indication of a site choice, only saying that it “wished to move ahead with the site selection process”.

However, instead of going for a single winner, rumours on the blogs suggest that the SKA Organisation may opt for splitting the SKA antennas between Africa and Australasia. Indeed, this is already happening on a smaller scale via the two SKA prototypes: the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder in mid-west Australia and the MeerKAT array in the Northern Cape province of South Africa.

Yesterday’s press release alluded that the SKA Organisation may be heading in this direction. The statement says that the members “recognised that it is desirable to maintain an inclusive approach to SKA”, adding that “it is important to maximize the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions”.

The SKA Organisation has now set up a scientific working group to “explore possible implementation options that would achieve this”. The working group will report back to the SKA Organisation at a meeting in mid-May, when perhaps a final decision will be made.

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