SKA site wrangle continues

SKA Organisation establishes working group to examine siting options

The Australian government has welcomed the decision of the first general meeting of the SKA Organisation, which is co-ordinating the establishment of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, to establish a science working group to examine site options for the SKA.

A statement from the SKA Organisation said members "agreed to set up a small scientific working group to explore possible implementation options...

"This working group will report back to the Members at a meeting in mid-May; its report will provide additional information to facilitate the site decision for SKA."

The statement said that the organisation wanted to move ahead with selecting a site and "recognised that it is desirable to maintain an inclusive approach to SKA" and "that it is important to maximise the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions."

Rival bids for the SKA site have been submitted by South Africa and an Australian-New Zealand consortium. The two host sites were shortlisted in September 2006. If Australia wins the bid, around 3000 antennas will be located in the Murchison region in WA and in New Zealand.

In March a scientific panel narrowly recommended South Africa over Australia for the telescope, which is slated to begin operating in 2020. However, science journal Nature reported that the decision was a close call with “no enormous preference for one over the other”.

The $2.1 billion project will include the world’s most powerful radio telescope, which will be used to answer questions such as how the universe began, why it is expanding, how black holes and stars are formed and whether life exists beyond earth. The SKA will be 10,000 times faster than any other telescope in the world and the central computer will be so powerful it will have the processing power of around 100 million PCs.

SKA board members include representatives from Australia, South Africa, China, Italy, the UK and the Netherlands as well as Canada, which was recently admitted to the organisation. The board will decide on the final location of the SKA; however, Australia and South Africa will not be eligible to vote.

The concept for the SKA was originally developed in 1991, with a shortlist of suitable sites released in 2006. CSIRO submitted a proposal to the SKA Organisation in December 2005 on behalf of the Australasian SKA Consortium, with Australia and New Zealand signing an agreement in August 2009 as joint-partner bidders for the SKA. In May 2011, the Australian government announced it would spend $40.2 million over four years on the SKA project on pre-construction design and development work if the bid is successful, in partnership with New Zealand.

According to Minister for Science and Research, Senator Chris Evans, Australia is an ideal host site due to its radio-quiet location, a strong economy and good security.

“Australia and New Zealand have demonstrated that the SKA can be cost effectively built at the Murchison site in Western Australia, including taking advantage of the existing fibre-optic network,” Senator Evans said in a statement.

“The existing infrastructure, in which we have already invested heavily, is world-leading, and, if our site is selected, there is further funding available to ensure the project’s success.”

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