Been there, done that

South Africa successfully hosted a 2 billion dollar soccer tournament in 2010, so building the world’s most powerful radio telescope at the same cost and with many more long term benefits should not be a problem.

Dr. Adrian Tiplady shared some of the advantages to hosting the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radiotelescope in South Africa with the public at the Wits Origins Centre last week. Tiplady is the South African SKA Site Characterisation Manager and one of Mail & Guardian’s top 200 Young South Africans.

The SKA is a global futuristic science project that was first devised in 1991. Tiplady explained that the telescope had to be designed using technology that would only be available in 2016. It will be 100 times more sensitive than today’s telescopes and will have the computing power of 1 billion personal computers.

Scientists use radiotelescopes to see into the past, to the origins of the Universe – an appropriate topic for a talk at the Origins Centre, said Tiplady.

Telescopes like the Hubble use light to take pictures but space dust and other obstacles may hide objects further away. Radiowaves move through these obstacles which means that astronomers can “see” much more by “listening” with radiotelescopes.

These radiotelescopes must be built in areas where there is little cellphone, radio and TV interference. Tiplady said the Northern Cape is the perfect location for this. He also said South Africa has superior technical solutions and is home to the world’s leading science and engineering team.

South Africa is bidding against Australia to host the telescope and rumours are rife that the two countries may have to share the site.

Tiplady said that although a huge disadvantage of this would be the high costs involved, his personal opinion is that sharing will ensure that scientists collecting the data will never miss anything.

At a press conference earlier this year the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, joked that not sharing the site was about the only thing on which she and the Australian minister agreed.