(25 May 2012) A giant radio telescope made up of thousands of separate dishes and intended to help scientists answer fundamental questions about the make-up of the universe will be built and based in both Australia and South Africa, the international consortium overseeing the project announced on Friday.
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope will be 50 times more sensitive and scan the sky 10,000 times faster than any existing telescope.
Not a long tube with an eye piece, the telescope is instead a huge collection of dishes with a combined surface area of one square kilometre (0.39 square miles) that don’t all have to be in the same place.
John Womersley, chair of the consortium’s board, said the telescope will help scientists answer key questions about the universe.
Prof. Brian J Boyle, CSIRO SKA Director, said the project would help shed light on “the nature of dark matter and dark energy, the stuff that makes up 96 percent of the universe, and yet the stuff we know a very little about.”
The organisation, made up of scientific organisations from around the world, said in a statement that dividing construction of the telescope will “maximise on investments already made by both Australia and South Africa.”
The decision appeared to be a compromise as Australia and New Zealand had been vying with South Africa for the honour of hosting the euro1.5 billion (b) (1.88 billion (b)) telescope, which will be made up of some 3,000 separate 15-meter (49-foot) diameter dishes.
Most of the dishes built in the first phase of construction, scheduled to start in 2019, will be in South Africa, the organisation said.
South Africa’s science minister, Naledi Pandor, said the decision to split the project, with one of three components in Australia and the remaining two in Africa, was a surprise.
She said an assessment had shown Africa was the best site, and that the goal had been to find a single site.
Australia’s bid also involves building some parts of the telescope in New Zealand.
All three countries offer the kind of terrain radio telescopes need to work best – huge open spaces with very few humans.
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