Siting decision due on Square Kilometre Array
Published: 25th May 2012 02:47:58
A decision is due later on where to site one of the great scientific projects of the 21st Century.
Australia and South Africa have been competing to host the 1.5bn-euro (£1.2bn) Square Kilometre Array, a giant next-generation radio telescope.
The SKA's huge fields of antennas will sweep the sky for answers to the major outstanding questions in astronomy.
They will probe the early Universe, test Einstein's theory of gravity and even search for alien intelligent life.
Nations belonging to the SKA Organisation are meeting in a hotel at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, to make the decision.
It has been widely reported that South Africa edged out Australia in the technical assessment of the rival bids, but it is down to the members to make the final judgement.
The project aims to produce a radio telescope with a collecting area of one million square metres - equivalent to about 200 football pitches.
Pallab Ghosh visits Jodrell Bank where the SKA project team is based
To do this, it will have to combine the signals received by thousands of small antennas spread over a distance of more than 3,000km.
This practice, known as interferometry, was pioneered by radio astronomers, but the SKA will push the approach to new levels to create a superscope with remarkable sensitivity and resolution.
Its targets will be light sources in the sky that radiate at centimetre to metre wavelengths.
These include the clouds of hydrogen gas in the infant Universe that collapsed to form the very first stars and galaxies.
The SKA maps precisely the positions of a billion galaxies. The structure they trace on the cosmos should reveal new details about "Dark Energy", the mysterious negative pressure that appears to be pushing the Universe apart at an ever increasing speed.
The telescope will also map out the influence of magnetic fields on the development of stars and galaxies. And it will zoom in on pulsars, the dead stars that emit beams of radio waves which sweep across the Earth like super-accurate time signals.
Astronomers believe these super-dense objects may hold the key to a more complete theory of gravity than that proposed by Einstein.
The competition between Australia and South Africa has been intense but friendly.
The countries were shortlisted because they each have territories that enjoy very little radio interference from the likes of cellular phones and TV transmissions.
For Australia, the array would be centred on a site at Boolardy Station, about 500km (310 miles) north of Perth in Western Australia. For South Africa, the central location would be in the Karoo in the Northern Cape, about 95km from Carnarvon.
But the sheer scale of the SKA means individual radio antennas would spread to New Zealand in the case of the Australian architecture, and into a number of neighbouring states and even Indian Ocean islands in the case of South Africa.
Whichever bid comes second will walk away with a very decent prize - a smaller radio astronomy facility built as a precursor during the bid process.
Both the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and the Karoo Array Telescope (known as Meerkat) will do world class science irrespective of whether they are eventually incorporated into the SKA.
As well as being a scientific marvel, the Square Kilometre Array is also a mighty engineering challenge.
It will generate prodigious amounts of data that have to be channelled through a vast fibre-optic broadband network; and that information will have to be processed by the fastest supercomputer available. The design calls for an exaflop system - a system capable of carrying out a million, million, million (quintillion) floating point operations per second.
Such a system does not yet exist, but the SKA Organisation is banking on the fact that it will by the time the project is fully up and running in the early 2020s.
The member nations meeting at Schiphol Airport will be asked to come to a unanimous endorsement of one of the bidders.
One complicating factor concerns a report ordered by the SKA board in April that sought to evaluate the feasibility of splitting the SKA across Australia and South Africa.
If the members are satisfied this is a non-starter (it would certainly be more expensive), they are back to a simple choice.
Votes can be cast at Friday's gathering by the UK, Netherlands, Italy, China and Canada. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will not vote; neither will India, as an associate member.
There will be a major industrial return for all members, irrespective of where the SKA is finally positioned.
The next project engineering phase is worth about 90m euros. Phase 1 of the project, due to start in 2015/16, is valued around 360m euros. The cost of the last phase will not be known until final detailed design work is done, but is likely to exceed 1.2bn euros.
Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter
At 07:00:12 in WalesCampaigners calling for a Cardiff reservoir to re-open will visit the prime minister to press their case to restore fishing and sailing there.
At 06:59:50 in EnglandA man and woman found dead in a Nottinghamshire house were stabbed, it has been confirmed.
At 06:56:53 in Business
At 06:55:04 in EnglandOne person has been arrested after three children were found dead at an address in south London.
At 06:38:57 in Northern IrelandThe Orange Order and a republican ex-prisoners' organisation have lent their support to a new course at Queen's University (QUB) that examines the use of public space to express identity.
At 06:36:03 in Northern IrelandTwo tributes to the late poet Seamus Heaney are to be held in Dublin later.
At 06:32:35 in EnglandA man has been charged following a fire at a house in Teesside.
At 06:16:09 in Northern IrelandAn ex-IRA man has made new allegations about Gerry Adams, in which he raises questions about the Sinn Féin leader's claim to have never been in the IRA.
At 06:11:26 in EnglandThe number of rats being reported by the public across Cornwall has increased by almost 50% in the past 12 months, council figures have revealed.
At 06:05:27 in EnglandSix historical buildings have been added to a register of "at risk" properties in Gloucester.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. Siting decision due on Square Kilometre Array [Online] (Updated 25th May 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1430816/Siting-decision-due-on-Square-Kilometre-Array [Accessed 23rd Apr 2014]
News In Other Categories
William Shakespeare is the UK's greatest cultural icon, according to the results of an international survey released to mark the 450th anniversary of his birth.
Maconochie's stew was a household name during World War One. The tinned "meat and vegetable rations" were welcomed by some troops but others described them as a "man-killer". They also had an unfortunate side-effect.
A man and woman found dead in a Nottinghamshire house were stabbed, it has been confirmed.
With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
The Orange Order and a republican ex-prisoners' organisation have lent their support to a new course at Queen's University (QUB) that examines the use of public space to express identity.