AUSTRALIA’S chances of hosting the world’s largest space telescope have been dealt a crippling blow after a key scientific panel recommended the $2.5 billion project be awarded to a rival consortium led by South Africa.
The Square Kilometre Array is to be aimed at the deep reaches of the universe and expected to generate immense amounts of data – enough to fill 15 million large iPods every day – and costing about $25 billion over 50 years to maintain.
A group of 20 countries will share the financial burden and the results of what is dubbed ”the experiment of the century”.
The array, which detects radio waves instead of light, will allow scientists to explore the dark matter that makes up most of the universe, and could even be used in the search for alien intelligence.
But Australia, in a joint bid with New Zealand, has failed to persuade an expert panel it offers a superior location for the project with less radio interference for the thousands of separate dishes and antennas that will comprise the array.
The panel of experts known as the SKA Site Advisory Committee made a confidential report last month judging the South African-led bid was stronger.
This is not the final decision – that rests with a vote of four countries represented on the board of directors for the project and is expected on April 4.
China, Italy, Britain and Holland will vote on the final location.
But the expert report is seen as a major setback to Australia’s hopes of eventually winning the project.
The option to spread the array across eight nations in southern Africa was judged the better bid in part due to lower costs to power the telescope and transfer the massive amounts of data.
When complete, the array is estimated to offer 10,000 times the discovery power of the biggest radio telescopes currently operating, and able to pick up the equivalent of a television signal on a planet light years away.
Australia has proposed locating the bulk of the array in Murchison Shire – a vast outback area in Western Australia with no mobile phone towers or other human activity to interfere with the signals.
About 3000 antenna dishes with a total surface area of one square kilometre make up the array, with antennas spread along a 5000-kilometre spiral stretching to the tip of New Zealand’s South Island.
Science and Research Minister Chris Evans – who led a team to China and Italy last month to press the case for Australia to build the array – declined to directly address questions on the panel’s recommendation.
”All parties to the SKA bid are bound by strict confidentiality,” Senator Evans said in a statement.
”Australia and New Zealand are committed to hosting the SKA and are actively engaged in the current stage of board deliberations – no vote for a decision on the site is currently scheduled.
”We believe we have a superior site in terms of the scientific, social and political measures being considered.”
Australia’s chief science agency, CSIRO, bid for the rights to host the array in 2005 and was shortlisted against a rival bid by South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar and Zambia.
Australia had been concerned that European nations saw the project – likened in ambition to the moon landings or the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva – as a type of development aid to boost poorer African nations.
But Australia sought to emphasis the scientific advantages of locating the array in Australia, with its clear atmospheric conditions.
The then science minister, Kim Carr, argued in 2010: ”There are better ways to sustain development, if that’s what your primary purpose is.” The bid also offered ”security, an attractive lifestyle and conducive business environment”.
But the arguments failed to sway the expert panel.
Construction of the array is set to begin in 2016.