We’re getting closer to knowing whether South Africa or Australia will win the bid to build the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a vast radio telescope which will span a radius of thousands of kilometers and allow astronomers to peer further and deeper into the cosmos than ever before. SKA’s site advisory committee announced on 10 March 2012 that they had selected the Southern African site as being the better choice, although they emphasized that the decision had been difficult as both countries had made compelling cases. Now that the recommendation has been made, the member countries sponsoring the telescope will vote and make a final decision, and since the choice was such a difficult one, it is not yet certain that the decision will be honoured.
The SKA will be composed of 3000 individual 15 meter radio dishes, with a total surface area of one square kilometer. They will be arranged in a dense central hub, with spiral arms extending outwards some 5000 km. It will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built, able to detect faint signals from the furthest reaches of the universe with unprecedented detail. It will cost $2.5 billion to build, and is expected to cost an additional $25 billion to maintain over its operational lifespan. Construction is expected to start in 2016, and will take 10 years to complete. In order to function, it requires computing, construction and data capacity that is far beyond the current state of the art. Even aside from the massive scientific contributions it will make, the spin-off benefits from all this new technological development make the projected costs a small and entirely worthy investment. The money is provided by the sponsor countries, making a winning bid that much more valuable to the host country.