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South Africa desert town battles for radio telescope

By Wendell Roelf

CARNARVON, South Africa (Reuters) - The occasional sheep seeks respite from a sun that has scorched rocks black in this semi-desert region that South Africa hopes will host the world's most powerful radio telescope.

Chosen because of its remoteness, with hills providing an extra shield against radio interference, the Carnarvon area could emerge as the African base for a telescope 50 times more sensitive and 10,000 times faster than any in existence.

Africa is competing against Australia for the right to host the 2 billion euro ($2.62 billion) Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, and its antennas and other receptors will extend in a pin-wheel design for 3,000 square kms (1,200 square miles).

Its centre must be in as remote a place as possible, free from electronic signals, and that is why Carnarvon, about 450 km northeast of Cape Town, is the site of a pilot project.

The SKA project, funded by a variety of countries and research institutions, is expected to come on line in 2023 and a decision is expected in February on whether Africa or Australia-New Zealand will be the site of the one of the world's biggest scientific construction projects.

"There are not many opportunities to serve as this kind of catalytic agent to catapult South Africa and the continent into the league of a serious scientific player," Deputy Science Minister Derek Hanekom told Reuters.

BOOST FOR AFRICA

South Africa already hosts the Southern African Large Telescope, the largest of its sort in the southern hemisphere.

Australia is building what it says is one of the world's premier sites for radio astronomy in the sparsely populated Mid West region of Western Australia.

Its bid with New Zealand boasts "extreme radio quietness and excellent atmospheric conditions" as well as a greater ease of doing business and greater safety than southern Africa.

South Africa, leading the continent's bid with eight other African nations, said it can provide lower construction costs, a comparable radio quiet zone and good value for money.

South Africa has budgeted about 1 billion rand ($120 million) for the next phase of its radio astronomy program after investing close to 1 billion to set up infrastructure.

If Africa was successful, the SKA telescope would eventually consist of about 3,000 antennas, half of them grouped at the main site on the outskirts of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape province, and the rest in Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Ghana, Mauritius, Madagascar, Kenya and Zambia.

SEEKING ALIENS

Seven antennas already erected at the Losberg terrain near Carnarvon have provided the engineering and design basis for Africa's SKA bid, and the MeerKAT project in the Karoo is ready to expand to 64 antennas.

MeerKAT will be the most powerful radio telescope in the southern hemisphere when it comes on line in 2016, and almost all of its components are locally manufactured.

MeerKAT and SKA will probe for alien life, search for clues about when the universe was born some 13.7 billion years ago during the Big Bang, and help shed light on celestial conundrums such as dark energy, black holes and pulsars.

At the project site, computing equipment will be buried underground to limit radio signal interference. Cell phone companies MTN and Vodacom are developing technologies to ensure their towers do not transmit signals into the demarcated radio astronomy reserve.

The site, more than one hour's drive along a bumpy and dusty dirt road from Carnarvon, is literally in the middle of nowhere.

The region last made news in 1929 when Malcolm Campbell tried to break the world land speed record on the Verneukpan salt pan.

For locals the project has brought hope and money.

"My business has picked up because contractors, scientists with the project are always looking for a place to stay," said Pieter Hoffman, owner of the Lord Carnarvon guest house.

"There is more business in town and more jobs. So it's good for the town and the future is looking good." ($1 = 8.2823 South African rand) ($1 = 0.7641 euros)

(Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Marius Bosch; editing by Robert Woodward)

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