27 mins to read

$2.4b SKA will be shared - but with South Africa awarded juiciest part of megascience project

The prospect of 500 tech jobs evaporates as hosting rights for the $2.4 billion Square Kilometre Array project are split - but with a cruel twist for New Zealand.

Chris Keall
Sat, 26 May 2012

UPDATE May 26: The prospect of 500 high tech jobs just evaporated.

Early this morning came news that hosting rights for the $2.4 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project will be split, as rumoured, between rival South African-led and Australian-led bids - but with a cruel twist for New Zealand.

The SKA - a giant radiotelescope project - will be used to probe deep space. By bouncing radio signals off the atmosphere, it will also track more earthly concerns such as climate change and tectonic shifts that could help predict earthquakes.

NBR understands that local protagonists in the SKA drama feared a split would see high frequency receptors allocated to South Africa, and the low frequency part of the project awarded to the Anzac bid.

That is what has happened overnight.

The lower-frequency element of the SKA can be accommodated by a modest array of antennas, possibly confined to Western Australia [UPDATE: SKA Organisation spokeswoman Jo Bowler told NBR ONLINE: "The low frequency antennas will be built in Australia but the details about exact locations and whether there will also be antennas in New Zealand has yet to be clarified."]

There will be no need for an Australasian-wide array of thousands of dishes in locations stretching from Western Australia to the North Island and South Island, creating one giant virtual radio telescope.

The project has also been split into two phases. The first part of the project will see some dishes added in Australia but "the majority" will be built in South Africa. 

"In phase 2 dishes will be built in South Africa only," Ms Bowler said.

Had the SKA gone solely to the Australian bid, backed by New Zealand (and a pledge to kick in around $55 million), the MED saw around 500 high-tech jobs being created on this side of the Tasman, and the NZ economy boosted to the tune of around $180 million.

Both sides had pilot projects in place - "MeerKAT" in southern Africa and "ASKAP" in Western Australia - backed by a new dish in Warkworth north of Auckland run by AUT (currently being used to track the SpaceX mission under a newly struck 10-year commercial deal).

SKA hosting rights were decided by representatives from five SKA Organisation countries:

• Canada
• China:
• Italy
• The Netherlands
• The United Kingdom

NBR understands that Canada and China backed the Anazac bid, while the three EU countries favoured the South Africa-led consortium.

Those in favour of the South African-led bid pointed to the region's relative radio science, and its well-organised MeerKAT pilot project.

Those against criticised its poor infrastructure and the political instability of several of the countries involved.

There were perhaps also more pragmatic factors involved. NBR understands the EU countries favoured southern Africa because it was closer, and because they could exercise more control over the project (see the SKA Organisation's official thinking here).

$2.4b megascience project could be shared by Australia-NZ and South Africa

UPDATE April 13: The respected science journal Nature has gone public with a rumour that's been doing the rounds of Auckland and Wellington over the past couple of months - that the $2.4 billion SKA project will be split between Australia-New Zealand and the rival South Africa-led consortium. 

Stay of SKA execution: decision delayed on $2.4b megascience project

UPDATE March 22: There were two good pieces of news for the Australia-New Zealand SKA bid today.

First, the SKA Organisation said its April 3 meeting  "is not likely that this meeting will make a final decision on the site; rather it will be the start of a process of discussion and negotiation between the members."

Second, the panel of voting countries has been expanded to include Canada. 

The other members are China (thought to support the Anzac bid) and the UK, Netherlands and Italy (said to lean toward the South Africa-led bid).

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a $2.4 billion megascience project involving up to 3000 radio telescopes.While the same 20 counties will chip in the same amount regardless of where the SKA's 3000 dishes are finally located, the project holds the promise of creating 500 high tech jobs (by an MED estimate). New Zealand will chip in up to $55 million.

RAW DATA: Statement from SKA Organisation secretary Colin Greenwood

Chris Keall
Sat, 26 May 2012
© All content copyright NBR. Do not reproduce in any form without permission, even if you have a paid subscription.
$2.4b SKA will be shared - but with South Africa awarded juiciest part of megascience project