SA builds case for mega scope

A REMOTE spot in South Africa's Karoo desert has taken a first step toward hosting one of the most powerful scientific instruments in history, to shed light on how the universe began.

A REMOTE spot in South Africa's Karoo desert has taken a first step toward hosting one of the most powerful scientific instruments in history, to shed light on how the universe began.

Driving the dirt road to the Karoo Array Telescope site, the FM radio searches in vain for a frequency it can catch, scanning the dial bottom to top and back again.

This very quiet corner of South Africa's sparsely populated Northern Cape seems an unlikely place to build such an instrument, but its silence is precisely what makes the Karoo an attractive site for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project.

Scientists hope the SKA, a massive new radio telescope linking 3000 antenna dishes, will shed new light on fundamental questions about the universe, including how it began, why it's expanding and whether it contains life beyond our planet.

To do that, the SKA will need a quiet radio spectrum, clear skies, high altitude and low seismic activity, according to Albert van Jaarsveld, president of the South African National Research Foundation, which is helping mount the country's bid to build the ultra-powerful new telescope.

South Africa is competing with Australia to win the contract for the SKA - a multi-billion dollar instrument - which is expected to be awarded in 2012. - Sapa-AFP

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