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South Africa, Australia Host Alien-Seeking Telescope Complex

May 25, 2012

A rendering of the Square Kilometer Array antennas. Source: SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy

A rendering of the Square Kilometer Array antennas. Source: SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy

South Africa and Australia will share the Square Kilometer Array, a project that that will see the construction of the world’s biggest radio telescope complex and may reveal whether there is life beyond earth.

The member countries of the group organizing the project unanimously decided that both of the shortlisted candidate nations should host the project. The majority of the first phase dishes will be built in South Africa, which is considered a “preferred site,” the group said in an e-mailed statement today.

“It’s an international, global project and one of the important things we seek to achieve is the broadest possible support for it,” Michiel Van Haarlem, the director-general of the Manchester, England-based organizing body, said in an interview at The Netherlands’ Schipol airport, where the decision was taken. “That’s needed, it is an expensive project and we need as many countries as possible to carry the costs.”

When its construction is completed in 2024, the telescope will be 50 times more sensitive and will be able to survey the sky 10,000 times faster than any existing radio telescope. It will allow astronomers to study the formation of the first black holes, stars and galaxies after the Big Bang, according to the SKA website. The telescope will be able to collect signals from the origin of the universe when it’s completed.

“In 2024 we expect to be able to look back at the first stars and milkyways formed in the universe,” Van Haarlem said. “We’ll look for extraterrestrial life and try to uncover the role of magnetic fields in the forming of stars.”

Life Elsewhere

The telescope will be able to observe complex molecules on distant planets, raising the possibility that it may detect life in another galaxy, according to its website.

The decision was taken unanimously by Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands and the U.K., SKA Organisation member countries which didn’t bid, the group said.

“Factors taken into account during the site selection process included levels of radio frequency interference, the long term sustainability of a radio quiet zone, the physical characteristics of the site, long distance data network connectivity, the operating and infrastructure costs as well as the political and working environment,” the SKA Organisation said.

South Africa accepted the decision to share the 1.5 billion euro ($1.9 billion) project.

Ecstatic Minister

“I’m ecstatic,” South Africa’s Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor told reporters in Pretoria, the capital. “Of course you want everything but getting three-quarters is pretty good in my view.”

Antennae for the project will be spread across eight other African countries, ranging from Ghana in West Africa to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of the continent, SKA Organisation said. Fiber-optic cables twice the length of the equator will connect thousands of dishes and other receptors, it said.

As part of the project, South Africa is building the Karoo Array Telescope, known as the MeerKAT, in the Northern Cape province. The seven-dish array telescope will be completed in 2016, according to the Department of Science and Technology. Other dishes will be added to the Askap array in Australia, SKA Organisation said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Franz Wild in Johannesburg at; Jurjen van de Pol in Amsterdam at; Mike Cohen in Cape Town at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at

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