China this week joined a “select” group of countries that had entered into negotiations to create a treaty organisation to govern the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the SKA Organisation said on Tuesday.
The SKA, which has a conservative price tag of €2-billion, will be the world’s largest radio telescope, comprising thousands of antennae throughout Australia and Africa with the core in South Africa’s Northern Cape. It will attempt to answer some of science and humanity’s most baffling questions, such as: Is there other life in the universe, how do galaxies form and what is dark matter?
With many countries – each trying to protect their investment and interests – and hundreds of scientists and engineers involved in the project, the project is looking to emulate other intergovernmental mega-science projects, such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).
Established in 1954, CERN has more than 20 member states and, according to the organisation, has more than 10,000 visiting scientists from more than 113 countries going to the CERN laboratory for their research.
Speaking at the sidelines of the SKA Organisation board meeting in Cape Town in July, newly elected president Giovanni Bignami said: “We are moving forward into an intergovernmental organisation. It sounds bureaucratic, but for us it is fundamental. It gives us the legal authority of an international [science] organisation.”
China this week signed a letter of intent. “The signing of the letter of intent marks China’s intention to enter formal negotiations with other SKA member nations,” the SKA Organisation said. “The negotiations are aimed at developing an intergovernmental agreement to establish the SKA Observatory and defining their contribution to the construction of Phase 1 of the SKA telescope.”
The other countries that have signed letters of intent include Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
SKA Organisation director-general Phil Diamond said this was a “very positive step both for the project and for China, one that opens the prospect of industrial contracts for Chinese industry and observing time for the Chinese astronomical community”.
After having signed a letter of intent, the country has to go back to its Parliament to get it ratified.
The aim was to have a drafting of the SKA Intergovernmental Organisation’s treaty or convention completed by the end of next year, the organisation said. Construction of SKA Phase 1 is expected to begin in 2018.
Asked why South Africa should care about the bureaucratic plans around SKA governance, SKA South Africa associate director of science and engineering Justin Jonas said, on the sidelines of the board meeting in July: “It is in our interests that the board and the organisation [are] healthy, that the politics and finances [are] done properly. That is the only way that a good technical and scientific instrument will eventuate out of it.”
He said: “It is important that the board ensures there is a good environment [to attract] other members … a) it will get money in [to fund the construction of the SKA] and b) it will be the international instrument that we want it to be. Eventually, all countries in the world with astronomy interests will be in the SKA. This is the CERN of radioastronomy. Anyone who wants to be a serious astronomer will be part of the SKA.”
At that meeting, Bignami said that he was “absolutely” confident that the Organisation – which currently has 10 members (although only seven have so far signed letters of intent regarding the intergovernmental organisation) – would attract more members, and that they “expect to have 15 members by the end of next year”.