OUR SPACE: It seems that confirming Africa as the recommended site for the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope is merely a formality.

John Yeld

A CRUCIAL meeting that could be the penultimate step in the decision-making process on where to build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope will take place on Monday.

This is when the board of directors of the SKA Organisation, the parent body of the R14.9 billion project, will discuss a confidential report and recommendation by the SKA Site Advisory Committee on where to build the telescope.

The committee’s report and site recommendation have already been endorsed by the SKA Siting Group, a six-member body set up specifically to confirm that the committee’s investigation and recommendation were duly rigorous.

The board released the report under conditions of strict confidentiality to the two consortiums bidding to host the project: SA with its eight African partners, and Australia and New Zealand.

But that confidentiality was broken, and last week the Australian media ran stories based on a leak saying the recommended site was Africa.

This was subsequently “confirmed” by a source of the UK scientific journal Nature.

According to the Associated Press, Science Minister Chris Evans told the National Press Club (of Australia) last week that “we are still absolutely committed to winning the bid”.

“To be frank, I think the thing that works against us the most is the sympathy for doing more in Africa – the European view which says we ought to be doing more development in Africa – and I think that is something that, at a political level, is quite strong.”

His comments seem to confirm that the Site Advisory Committee’s recommendation is in favour of Africa, and there’s concern that Australia may use Monday’s meeting to launch an all-out attack on its findings and possibly seek to have the recommendation scrapped or sent back for re-evaluation.

But there appears to be no legal basis for such a step, because the decision-making process has been set out precisely in the company’s Articles of Association, which were formally approved and adopted by all the members – including site bidders SA, Australia and New Zealand – on February 7.

The SKA Organisation declined to give Independent Newspapers a copy of the articles, but these were subsequently obtained from the British company register.

The articles indicate that the recommendation should go to the scheduled “general meeting” at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands on April 4, where a decision should be taken by the four “neutral” board members of the SKA Organisation – the UK, Netherlands, Italy and China.