Star trails form over radio telescope dishes of the KAT-7 Array in a long exposure picture taken at the proposed South African site for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope near Carnavon.

A majority of the SKA Organisation’s members has voted in favour of a “dual-site implementation model” for the ultra-sensitive radio telescope project that will allow astronomers to see back in time to the formation and evolution of the very first stars and galaxies, soon after the Big Bang.

It will also allow scientists to investigate the nature of gravity and possibly even discover life beyond Earth.

The Square Kilometre Array, which will have about 3 000 receiving dishes, has always been envisaged as operating over two frequency ranges, low frequency and mid-frequency, and the antennas or receiving dishes that collect signals in these ranges are very different.

The antennas for the mid-frequency range are large, about 12m in diameter, and are able to turn, while the low-frequency antennas are very simple, resembling ordinary TV aerials, and are fixed to the ground.

In a statement, the SKA Organisation explained that most of SKA receiving dishes for phase one would be built in SA, and combined with its 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope, making about 250 dishes.

Further SKA dishes would be added to the existing Askap array in Australia – that country’s 36-dish equivalent of MeerKAT – making a total of 60.

All the dishes and the mid-frequency aperture arrays for phase two of the SKA would be built in southern Africa, while the low-frequency aperture array antennas for phases one and two would be built in Australia.

Reaction to the announcement that SA will host most of SKA has been positive.

Science and Technology Deputy Minister Derek Hanekom said on Twitter: “SA got 80 percent of the project Well done SA!! #SKA! Always good beating Wallabies! SA top of the world.”

Financial Mail editor Barney Mthombothi tweeted that Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor had steered SA to a win. “Well done to Naledi Pandor (and) her team. No surprise she pulled it off. She’s one of our ablest ministers.”

Anti-fracking organisation TimelessKaroo was ecstatic on Twitter.

“ Hooray! SA has won the SKA bid! Now a BIG chunk of Karoo is safe from fracking.”

Meanwhile Dr Bernie Fanaroff, the SKA SA project director, expressed his delight at the news.

“It means that for the first time in our history, Africa will be the host to the world’s largest scientific instrument. And it shows a great deal of faith by the rest of the world in our ability and our capacity to both build and operate such a sophisticated instrument.

“It also reflects the recognition in Africa of how important science and technology is to our future.” - Cape Argus