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Something as big as half a continent needs people on many continents to fund it. The SKA is a collaboration of more than a dozen countries that will share in its estimated building costs of $2 billion and operating costs of $130 million to $200 million a year. When bidding to host the SKA began in January 2003, the U.S., China, Australia, Argentina and South Africa all expressed interest. But the best place for a radio telescope is way out in the middle of nowhere, with no interfering radio signals, particularly no mobile phones. That ruled out the U.S., China and Argentina and left the great empty deserts in western Australia and northern South Africa.
On Feb. 7, an international committee will recommend which of the two should be the winner though splitting the SKA between them is also possible, says Jim Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University. "Most people see the tremendous work going on in both countries, and we would want to keep everyone involved," he says. There will still likely be a headquarters, however, and the contest to host that is real. The benefits of winning that competition include hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in power, communications and data processing, not to mention the prestige of being home to a project that Fanaroff expects to produce "several Nobels." Everyone involved, from developers to funders to host countries, could also cash in on business spin-offs that could come from the work. (Wi-fi and digital cameras are among products originally developed by astronomers.)
For South Africa, even being in the running is an achievement. When Fanaroff's team submitted a bid, the world of science was "a bit taken aback," he says. Fanaroff says his mission is partly to overturn such "Afro-pessimism," and he is succeeding: in the years since, surprise has become admiration. In particular, Fanaroff's program of training engineers and physicists, funding bursaries for Ph.D.s and M.S.s as well as undergraduates with special attention to women and blacks has produced a team of astronomers widely acknowledged to be equal to any in the world.
In another way, Africa's backward reputation might be an advantage in the contest with Australia. "The impact on Africa would be very far-reaching and a lot more than anywhere else in the world," Fanaroff says. "It would be good for getting business into Africa, and we would be creating people with skills and expertise to solve problems not just in astronomy but energy, water, food security, disease and transport."
Though Brian Boyle, head of the Australian bid, naturally favors his own case, he stresses that the competition is not as important as the result. Whoever wins, the SKA will be both "an opportunity to deliver an outstanding telescope to the world" and a chance for "a democratization of science," placing significant astronomical infrastructure in the southern hemisphere.
The SKA will not be complete until after 2020. In the meantime, both Australia and South Africa, with funding and technical assistance from around the world, are already building smaller telescopes (36 dishes in Australia and 80 in South Africa) that will eventually be incorporated into the full SKA. The first seven South African dishes are now live, transmitting their readings back to a monitoring station in Cape Town.
When I visited the station, telescope manager Willem Esterhuyse showed me a printout of the first readings. Cordes from Cornell had told me to prepare to be surprised. "The origin of life is one thing," he had said. "This is the origin of everything." Something very far away, perhaps even the Big Bang, was speaking to me on the paper I held in my hand. But I didn't see black holes, I didn't see aliens, and I didn't see the Dawn of Everything. Instead, what I saw was a series of rainbows of varying width, similar to the test printout from a new color copier. "It makes you think, doesn't it?" asked a grinning Esterhuyse. Like I said: spacey.