Can Africa Topple Australia in the Contest To Build the World's Biggest Telescope?

Physicists from across Africa gathered this week in Dakar, Senegal, for a conference focused on lasers and optics. But radio astronomy dominated the chatter in the hallways. Africa has a shot at hosting what would be the world's largest scientific instrument, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope. The array of 1000 radio dishes will be built either in Africa or Australia. This week's meeting in Senegal was not only the first pan-African physics conference; it also became a rally to unite scientists behind Africa's SKA bid—and the multinational coalition of scientists have a punter's chance that a few years ago would've been a major long shot.

Africans weren't the only scientists on the scene. Charles McGruder, an astronomer from Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, laid out a battle plan for winning the bid. McGruder is a past president of the U.S. National Society of Black Physicists and a National Science Foundation–funded promoter of African astronomy. "We have a real kinship," he says, and "bringing the SKA to Africa is our top priority." Since the United States is footing one third of SKA's $2.3 billion construction bill, McGruder's influence could be pivotal, says Phil Charles, director of the Southern African Large Telescope. Where the SKA ends up will be largely determined by "the people with the deepest pockets," he says. However, he adds, that the actual process for selection by the SKA steering committee—made up of representatives of the 19 SKA member states, including the United States—remains "very unclear." According to the committee, the decision will be made in 2012.

"Five years ago, everyone assumed that Australia was sure to get the SKA," says Charles. Australia has long been a "giant" of radio-astronomy, he says, while Africa had virtually no radio telescopes.

But then the government of South Africa committed $250 million to constructing an array of radio dishes that would become part of the African SKA. Seven of the planned 80 dishes of the array, known as MeerKAT, have already been built. "Now people are taking our bid seriously," he says. Meanwhile, Australia is building up its own seed array, called the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP).

The first step toward winning the bid, says McGruder, is for African scientists to show a united front. Yesterday the scientists gathered to officially launch the African Physical Society. "It is crucial to have this society so that we scientists can put pressure on our governments to make pan-African science possible," says the conference organizer, Ahmadou Wagué, a physicist at the University of Dakar. "Mobility is a huge problem. This has been the first time that many of us scientists have met each other face to face." Difficulties obtaining travel visas within Africa have hampered previous meetings.

In spite of the good will at the meeting, there are some doubts about Africa's chances to win the bid. SKA would require unprecedented regional scientific cooperation, because its massive array of dishes would be spread across nine different countries, with the core in South Africa. "I put the chances at 50/50," says Cingo Ndumiso, a physicist and manager of South Africa's National Laser Centre. "The biggest problem is putting the legal framework in place in each state to make this international network function."

Some even wondered whether SKA would be a net benefit for African science. "I worry that it would worsen the problem of brain drain from the other African countries to South Africa," said a European physicist at the meeting who did not want to be identified because of his ongoing collaborations in Africa. Others dismiss such worries. "This meeting makes it clear that Africa has achieved the critical mass of scientists," says Sune Svanberg, a physicist at Lund University in Sweden. "The SKA belongs here."