UK to house headquarters of world’s biggest radio telescope Square Kilometre Array
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope will be so powerful it will allow scientists to look all the way back to the aftermath of the Big Bang. Although the telescope itself will be based in South Africa and Australia, the headquarters will be crucial to its running, housing the scientists who will control what it observes.
A protracted and sometimes bitter battle between Italy and the UK to host the headquarters for telescope ended yesterday, as the renowned Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire was given the nod.
Jodrell is the home of the groundbreaking Lovell telescope, the world’s biggest steerable radio dish when it was built in 1957. But the site was up against stiff competition in the form of Castello Carrarese, another great astronomy hub, hosting Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics (Inaf).
Being chosen to be the nerve centre for of this project is a huge coup for the UK – and one that it fought hard for behind the scenes against a vocal Italian opponent.
Speaking to The Independent last month, the Italian camp was in bullish form, saying the culturally rich Padua was clearly superior to the “backwater” of Cheshire.
“There is no question that the Italian entry comes out as a clear best in many counts,” said Giovanni Bignami, the president of Inaf, who was masterminding the Italian bid.
“The working environment is infinitely better in the Padua region – a city like Padua is much better than the rural environment of Cheshire, which is a trifle isolated. Padua is practically connected to Venice, which is much better for families, and it is a culturally rich environment,” he said.
The British camp refused to be drawn into a public debate – preferring instead to do its lobbying behind the scenes.
At one point, the UK Department for British Innovation and Skills even threatened to pull out of the project if the UK – which has been providing the temporary HQ for the project – didn’t retain the leadership role of the 11-country scheme on a permanent basis. Both sides declined to comment ahead of a detailed formal announcement on 30 April.
The cost of the telescope, which was conceived in 1991, has been estimated at £2bn. Construction is due to begin at the end of 2017 and it will become fully operational by 2024.
It is so large that it will be spread across two continents, involving 2,500 dishes and one million antennas distributed over thousands of square kilometres in the deserts of South Africa and Australia. It will be more than 50 times more sensitive than any existing radio telescope, surpassing even the resolution of the Hubble space telescope.
Robert Massey, deputy executive secretary of the Royal Astronomy Society, said: “This is extremely good news. It’s great that the SKA telescope is happening and it’s great for UK science that the country has got the HQ of what will be the most ambitious radio telescope that has ever been built.”