September 15, 2011
Sitting in a white prefab hut, Lindsay Magnus punches a code into a computer beneath bands of red, green and blue representing the Centaurus A galaxy. Beyond the window, seven giant dishes turn in unison, throwing shadows across the gravel. Their target lies millions of light years away in the cosmos.
Magnus and his colleagues are aiming to build the world’s biggest telescope. It will cost £1.3bn and consist of thousands of dishes with a total surface area of one square kilometre. It will generate enough raw data to fill 15m 64 GB iPods every day, requiring a supercomputer 1,000 times faster than currently exists. It will peer back to a time before the first stars and galaxies formed and offer our best chance yet of detecting alien intelligence.
And there is a strong chance the telescope will be African. Bids will be submitted on Thursday to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an instrument that turns radio waves into pictures of galaxies, exploding stars and other space phenomena. The contest pitches South Africa (in partnership with eight other African countries) against Australia and New Zealand.
Both contenders offer vast tracts of land with tiny populations – vital to avoid interference from mobile phones and other electronics. Both are also in the southern hemisphere, which offers a better perspective on the centre of our galaxy but which has been relatively neglected to date. An old joke has it: “God put all the astronomers in the northern hemisphere and all the interesting objects in the southern.”
But Africa would also have political purchase. A continent often written off as broken and doomed, and a backwater of scientific research is on the verge of landing one of the most important astronomical projects of the early 21st century. Much was said about last year’s football World Cup as a blow to “Afro-pessimism.”