The decision to split the construction of the world's most powerful radio telescope between South Africa and Australia was “unexpected”, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said on Friday.
South Africa would accept the compromise by the Square Kilometre Array's Site Advisory Committee (SSAC) “in the interest of science”, she told reporters.
“A meeting of the members has decided to split the project, which is an unexpected decision given the search for a single site,” Pandor said after being cheered by members of South Africa's SKA team.
“We had hoped the unambiguous recommendation of the SSAC would be accepted as the most sound scientific outcome.
“We accept the compromise in the interest of science and as acknowledgement of the sterling work done by our scientists and the excellent SKA project team.”
The decision marked a turning point in Africa as a destination for science and engineering, said Justin Jonas, associate director for science and engineering at the SKA South Africa Project.
“This does signal a new era in Africa. We must realise how big this is.”
He said Africa would construct two of the three SKA receiver components, which was a major project
“Two thirds of the biggest instrument in the world is still the biggest instrument in the world,” he said.
“The science that will come out of this is truly amazing.
“The committee found that splitting the SKA didn't compromise science. It will increase the costs, but will not compromise science in any way.”
Jonas hoped the project could now move “properly forward” and that the team could start “building stuff”.
SKA board chairman John Womersley said at press conference in Amsterdam earlier on Friday that a dual site approach had been decided on.
“We will be installing equipment in both Australia and South Africa and together they will form part of a global observatory,” he said in comments quoted by French news agency AFP.
South Africa and Australia were competing to win the US2 billion contract.
The SKA will be 50 times more sensitive than the current most powerful radio telescopes.
Scientists hope the SKA project will provide answers about the universe, such as how it started and why it is expanding.
Australia's core site will be the Mileura station, about 100
kilometres west of Meekathara in western Australia.
South Africa's main site will be outside Carnarvon in the Karoo.
Satellite dishes for the project will stretch across south and east Africa. - Sapa