South Africa’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in the Northern Cape province has been given a “tremendous boost”, with new legislation that would ensure globally important astronomy facilities were protected from developments that might interfere with their research.
President Thabo Mbeki gave the stamp of approval for the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Bill last week, when he signed it into law in Pretoria, now giving the Science and Technology Minister power to declare astronomy advantage areas.
Project manager of South Africa’s bid to host the SKA, Dr Bernie Fanaroff, said on Wednesday that this was a positive move.
“This marks a tremendous boost for our international bid to host the SKA, which is likely to be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the next two decades, consisting of thousands of dishes between 10 and 15 metres in diameter,” he commented in an emailed statement.
South Africa and Australia are the only two countries remaining on the shortlist to site this €1,5-billion mega telescope and a final decision on the site is expected by 2010. Construction is likely to start in 2014.
The SKA will be 50 times more sensitive than any existing facility and will probe some of the biggest questions in the Universe, including searching for earth-like planets and potential life, looking at the first objects in the Universe, testing theories of gravity and examining the mystery of dark energy.
Should South Africa win the bid, it will build the telescope in the Northern Cape, which also hosts the Southern African Large Telescope, or SALT, which is the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Department of Science and Technology said the new astronomy legislation would ensure the protection of large-scale investments already made in astronomy; the preservation of an environment for a global astronomy hub that would continue to attract international investment; and the provision of a competitive advantage to help South Africa become the preferred host of SKA.
It stated that the Act provided for developing the skills, capabilities and expertise of those engaged in astronomy and related scientific endeavours in Southern Africa.
It would assist with the identification and protection of areas in which astronomy projects of national strategic importance could be undertaken, and the declaration and management of astronomy advantage areas.
The leglislation also provided a framework for the establishment of a national system of astronomy advantage areas to ensure that geographic areas highly suitable for astronomy and related scientific endeavours, and would enhance the country's geographic advantage by restricting activities that cause, or could cause, light pollution or radio frequency interference, or might interfere in any other way with astronomy and related scientific endeavours in these areas.