Australia and South Africa are to share the world’s biggest telescope – the Square Kilometre Array.
After an intense six-year battle between the two bidding nations, a split-site solution for the giant radio telescope has been reached, with antennas to be built in both countries.
The decision was made on Friday night at a meeting in Amsterdam of the board of directors of the international SKA Organisation overseeing the telescope’s construction.
It had been feared Australia would miss out, after an independent scientific panel in February narrowly recommended South Africa as the preferred site.
To be one of the great scientific projects of the 21st century, the array will be so sensitive it could detect an aircraft radar on a planet 50 light years away.
It will be able to look back to the dark ages just after the Big Bang, and could help answer some of the big question of the cosmos, such as whether we are alone, and the nature of mysterious dark energy and dark matter.
Due to be fully operational by 2024, the internationally funded project will provide a significant economic boost to both countries, particularly in the construction, engineering and IT sectors.
In a majority determination it was decided that most of the dishes that will comprise the array in the first phase will be built in South Africa and combined with a 64-dish telescope planned there called MeerKAT.
More SKA dishes will be added to a 36-dish telescope almost completed in Australia called the Australian SKA Pathfinder.
A second set of mid-frequency antennae will be built in South Africa and a third set of low frequency antenna will be built in Australia.
The core Australian site is in the remote shire of Murchison, in Western Australia, a radio-quiet zone about 300 kilometres north-east of Geraldton which has only about 100 people in an area larger than Holland.
In South Africa, it is in the Karoo desert in the Northern Cape.
The decision to share the telescope, which will have three types of antennas including 3000 dishes, was made by five of the organisation’s eight member nations – Italy, the Netherlands, Britain, Canada and China.
The concept of building a mega-telescope with a square kilometre of collecting area was proposed 20 years ago. Australia and South Africa were shortlisted as potential hosts in 2006.
In March, the Herald broke the story that the independent scientific panel had recommended South Africa.
However a final decision was delayed while a new scientific working group investigated the possibility of an ‘‘inclusive approach’’ that would ‘‘maximise the value from the investments made by both countries’’.
On Friday, before the decision to share the telescope was made, the Minister of Science, Chris Evans, said the Australian government had ‘‘continued to argue Australia’s case right up to the 11th hour’’.