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Split hosts for giant telescope

Australia and South Africa will share the hosting of a giant radio telescope made up of thousands of separate dishes which will help scientists better understand the make-up of the universe.

South Africa led an African consortium that included Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia, and telescopes will be erected in all its partners.

In South Africa, dishes will be added to a remote site in the arid Karoo desert where a smaller radio telescope project already is under way.

South Africa and Australia, which partnered with New Zealand in bidding for the project, had competed fiercely. South Africa claimed victory, saying it got two of the project's three major components.

"We may feel slightly disappointed that we didn't get the whole thing. But I think one should emphasise that we did get most of it," said Justin Jonas, the chief South African scientist on the project. "Two-thirds of the biggest instrument in the world is still the biggest instrument in the world."

South Africa's science minister Naledi Pandor and scientists who had prepared the country's bid celebrated with an Africa-shaped cake at a news conference in South Africa's capital Pretoria. "This marks a real turning point in Africa, where we are becoming a destination for science and engineering, and not just a place where there are resources and tourism opportunities," Mr Jonas added.

Australia also welcomed the split decision. "It is an outstanding result for the Australia-New Zealand bid after many years of preparation and an intensive international process," said Senator Chris Evans, Australia's science minister.

The Square Kilometre Array telescope will be 50 times more sensitive and scan the sky 10,000 times faster than any existing telescope. It requires huge open spaces with very few humans.

John Womersley, chairman of the consortium's board, said the telescope would help scientists answer key questions: "Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is this universe we live in?". "We don't understand what 96% of our universe is made of," he said.

The organisation said dividing construction of the telescope would "maximise on investments already made by both Australia and South Africa".

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