It’s a matchup usually reserved for the pitch: Australia versus South Africa. But this showdown doesn’t involve scrums or slide tackles, instead it’s about astronomy.
The two nations are vying to secure the world’s largest and most expensive radio telescope, the coveted Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
Comprised of thousands of receptors linked electronically across a continent, the $2.5 billion telescope will have a collection area roughly one square kilometre in size. Once operational, it will peer back to the dawn of the universe, tracing the evolution of distant galaxies, the formation of the first stars, and exploring the mysteries of dark energy.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have poured in from both the Australian and South African governments to support their respective bids. Why? Because they anticipate that the project will drive future innovation, attract foreign investment and create skilled jobs for the next half-century.
The Australian government announced in the May budget that it would pledge a further $40 million to the project.
A group of independent experts will asses each country’s bid and the technical feasability of their proposed location, looking at factors such as operating costs and radio frequency interference levels, then make a recommendation to the SKA Board of Directors.
Comprised of international representatives from 13 countries, the SKA Board will get the final say on where the radio telescope winds up. And with a decision slated for February 2012, the stakes are high.
"What we know is that some Australian representatives have been going around the world, addressing foreign partners saying the SKA decision is a foregone conclusion," said SKA South Africa project director Bernie Fanaroff in a telephone interview with New Matilda in April. "It’s certainly not a foregone conclusion … There’s nothing you can do in Australia that you cannot do in South Africa."
The man tasked with bringing the SKA to Australia, however, has remained diplomatic. "My primary goal is to ensure that the international project is successful, and that the selection process is untainted and runs its course," Australia SKA director Brian Boyle told New Matilda over the phone.
Shortlisted as finalists by an international committee in 2006, both countries have compelling cases to host the project: remote, radio-quiet environments, important precursor projects testing site viability, clear views of the southern sky and astronomers who are confident their side will prevail.
South African officials say their bid provides a more cost effective option, as labour to construct and maintain the telescope would be more affordable. There are, however, also some clearly defined advantages weighing in Australia’s favour.
With New Zealand on board, Australia has a larger baseline of 5,500 km that will only cross one international border (the baseline is the geographic distance across which the receptors will be stationed and linked, and a larger one will allow for sharper images of the sky). By comparison, for South Africa to reach the minimum baseline requirement of 3,000 km it has had to partner with eight other African nations.
In addition, Australia’s core site, the Murchison Radio-Astronomy Observatory (MRO), located about 500 km northeast of Perth in Western Australia, is less densely populated.
Murchison has an area of approximately 50,000 square km — larger than several European countries — and only 160 permanent residents.
This translates into less radio frequency interference from things like mobile phones, cars, radio and television transmissions, and other electronics. This is highly important to the success of the SKA, especially over the long term, as the telescope is projected to have a lifespan of 50 years from the time it becomes functional in 2024.
The ability to sustain a radio-quiet environment over the coming decades was outlined by the SKA Siting Group as one of the key criteria in its pending decision. But while void of people, the region is not void of companies keen to capitalise on the state’s abundance of natural resources. Heavy machinery and communications infrastructure needed for mining operations could cause unwanted interference.
In 2005, the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA) — the agency that governs radiocommunication licensing — established the country’s first radio quiet zone to protect the MRO.
In July this year, it strengthened these protections, introducing a Frequency Band Plan. This places limitations on the radio waves that nearby industries can emit and revises licensing arrangements to protect against harmful interference.
It also designates an inner zone with a 70 km radius, in which radio astronomy is the primary service, and an outer zone stretching from 70 to 150 km where other services can operate, but only after technical consultations with the CSIRO, Australia’s national science organisation, which manages the MRO.
There are two mine sites within this outer-zone and an associated $6 billion rail line scheduled for development to service these mines.
Prior to finalising these new rules on the quiet zone, the ACMA received submissions from key stakeholders outlining their concerns.
Crosslands Resources currently exports 2 million tonnes of iron ore annually from its Jack Hills mine — roughly 96 km from the core SKA site — and has plans to expand its operations over the next few years, to extract and ship 35 million tonnes per year.
In its submission to the ACMA, Crosslands expressed support for the SKA project, but questioned the proposed Frequency Band Plan, saying it could hinder their expansion and give unfair preference to radio astronomy.
It wrote: "Crosslands disputes that there is a factual basis to support a presumption that radio astronomy is the highest value use of the radio spectrum in the region, or the one use which clearly generates the ‘greatest benefit’ for the community…"
Oakajee Port and Rail, which is building a rail corridor to service mines in the region, also made a submission opposing the plan: "The proposed regulation would operate to deny our co-existence with the MRO, because it would make our spectrum use, by law, always and forever secondary…"
It continued: "By giving the MRO entity more certainty, these proposals remove certainty for all others — undermining their viability, feasibility and financing, and perhaps ultimately requiring government to choose between radio astronomy or mining in what may become a public battle between the two, which is not in the interests of either party…"
According to emails from spokespersons at Oakajee and Crosslands, both companies are now in the process of reviewing the legislative changes to determine the impact on, and the level of certainty they provide, to current and future operations. The companies declined to comment further on any specific courses of action.
Boyle, however, remains confident that radio astronomy and mining can co-exist because the region is so vast, and said the CSIRO has already had positive discussions with engineers from concerned companies such as Crosslands around establishing technical solutions.
He said the legislation comes with a solid management framework that outlines specific licensing and dispute resolution processes, and noted that developments, such as rail lines, would actually benefit the astronomy community, providing transportation to the isolated telescope sites.
The state government is also confident that the ACMA amendments provide an agreeable solution. Western Australia’s innovation and science minister John Day said the new legislation "balances the priorities of science and the resources industry".
Day called the mining industry "vitally important", but said "the state government is also acutely aware of the need to invest in projects [like the SKA]that will ensure Western Australia remains economically competitive into the future".
If the SKA Board chooses Murchison as the site of the radio telescope, ACMA, the WA state government and the mining companies active in the region will have to work hard to negotiate the best and fairest use of the remote region’s airwaves.
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