SKA Teaser

February 19, 2012

Meanwhile, ground based astronomy continues. US chums pointed me at the NSF budget request. Of course this has to get through the House and the Senate, but so far astronomy seems to be holding its own, and LSST is proposed for a modest boost this year – $7.5M development, up from $4.0M last year. Construction starting in FY2015 still looks like the bet. Of course the scary thing in NSF land is the Portfolio Review . Stuff will close – but what ?

Back here in sunny Manchester, SKA Incorporated, which is of course a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc, is teasing us.  The Big Decision is whether to build the beast in South Africa or Australia. This is a non-trivial economic and political issue, not just a scientific one. Things are hotting up. Like Telescoper, I was recently invited to a “webinar” to help promote the Australian case. (See Peter’s post  on this). I can’t claim to be as principled as Peter – I failed to respond because I was too darned busy. But it did also strike me as unnusual by astro-project standards.

And now, a press release about the site selection ! In the usual manner, I learned about this first from a Tweet by Paul Crowther, which then took me to an STFC announcement which had a link to a statement by the project. A site selection recommendation has been made ! Oh hang on.. its says “recommendation”, not “decision”… A committee has completed the evaluation, but the real decision will be taken by a Meeting of the Members about April-ish. Until then, nobody ain’t saying nuffing. They are just teasing us. Jeez.

I have always been puzzled by engagements. Stay with me. Why don’t people just get married ? But some people even announce when they are going to get engaged. Do they expect even more presents ? Anyway. SKA. Nothing has been built. They haven’t decided where or when they will start building. But they have publicly announced their intention to decide in the near future.

Warning ! Cartoon simplification approaching !

Sixty years ago radio astronomy was way ahead of the curve. Key scientists came out of the war with an understanding of how government actually worked, and the government understood that technology and science went hand in hand, and that academia could be useful. Money flowed.

Twenty years ago radio astronomy was sleepy town. Gentleman amateurs doing the same old science. Drinking tea in their tweed jackets in labs that still looked like they came straight out of Quatermass and the Pit. Lost the knack of making a pitch at PPARC committees etc.

Then somehow they woke up and it all swung round. SKA is a tightly controlled machine.  A couple of years back there was a lively discussion on this blog about future ground based facilities, but nobody was pitching for SKA. At a workshop I was attending, I mentioned this in passing to an SKA type I knew. Ahh, said s/he, this was discussed on a telecon the other day, and it was decided the policy was not to join in the e-Astronomer discussion.  My eyes bulged. It was amazing they even discussed the blog, and even more amazing they had a policy.

That evening, I mentioned this obliquely – without naming any names – in a blog post. The next day Person X told me I’d gotten them into trouble. They knew who it was. Is there some kind of SKA GCHQ ?

Well, probably one shouldn’t attribute too much technological power to SKA. As I write, their web site ain’t working.

By the way, it is a very groovy project. Just wish they chill out.