Once completed the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope will have 50 times the sensitivity and 10,000 times the survey speed of the most-advanced radio telescopes currently in use. A decision made on where the receptors in the array will be erected is a major step forward for the project.
Phase I of the SKA project will see most of the new dishes added to the existing MeerKAT array in the Karoo region of South Africa, but further dishes will be built in Western Australia where the ASKAP array is currently under development.
The report of the SKA Site Advisory Committee outlined the relative advantages and disadvantages of each location, concluding that the South African site would be preferable. Levels of radio frequency interference, long-distance data network connectivity, the physical features of the site, long-term sustainability of radio quiet, operating and infrastructure costs, and the political and work environment were all factors taken into consideration by the committee.
When finished the array will include thousands of receptors over vast areas and the data it provides will allow astronomers to address fundamental questions about the origins of the stars and galaxies, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, and the nature of gravity.
"This hugely important step for the project allows us to progress the design and prepare for the construction phase of the telescope," explained Dr Michiel van Haarlem, Interim Director General of the SKA Organisation. "The SKA will transform our view of the Universe; with it we will see back to the moments after the Big Bang and discover previously unexplored parts of the cosmos."
While the mid-frequency aperture arrays and dishes for Phase II will be built in South Africa, the low-frequency aperture arrays and antennas for Phases I and II will be constructed in Australia and New Zealand.
The decision to operate two sites was taken by those member countries who had not submitted a proposal to host the SKA, namely Canada, Italy, China, the Netherlands and the UK. Scientists from all over the world are contributing to the project, which has repercussions beyond radio astronomy in the development of new technologies and skills, the creation of jobs and economic growth.
"Today we are a stage closer to achieving our goal of building the SKA," said Professor John Womersley, Chair of the SKA Board of Directors. "This position was reached after very careful consideration of information gathered from extensive investigations at both candidate sites."