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S.Africa, Australia in celestial spat for new telescope

By Jon Herskovitz and James Grubel

JOHANNESBURG/CANBERRA (Reuters) - Deadly rivals on the rugby field, cricket pitch and in the underground mining sector, South Africa and Australia are now squaring off in a new contest: to win the right to host the world's most powerful telescope.

The duo are finalists in a tender to host the device, known as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be 50 times more sensitive and 10,000 times faster than any other telescope on the planet, according to the international consortium funding the 2 billion euro ($2.66 billion) project.

The fight has turned nasty, with South Africa accusing Australia of dirty tricks and Australians raising security concerns about building such an expensive project in South Africa, which has high rates of violent crime.

South Africa has even accused Australia of "selectively leaking" data about what are supposed to be secret deliberations in order to boost its own bid.

Reports in Australian media suggest South Africa may have the upper hand with the consortium behind the telescope favoring its bid less for the science and more for the economic impact the project will have for emerging African economies.

"While claiming to respect the integrity of the selection process, this is a not very subtle attempt to undermine the scientific and technical rigor of the site adjudication process, by suggesting that the reported superiority of the South African bid was nothing more than a 'sympathy decision'," South Africa's Science Ministry said last week.

The Sydney Morning Herald last month reported that a panel of experts had recommended South Africa as host, with Australia - in a joint bid with New Zealand - failing to convince the panel.

"We think we've got a superior case and we're going to keep arguing and pushing it until the decision is made and we're hopeful that we can still win the site selection," Australian Senator Chris Evans said last week at a news conference.

South African officials said it has the scientific know-how and technical capability to host the project, which would extend to other African countries.

REMOTE LOCATION KEY

The Britain-based consortium behind the telescope includes Canada, China, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom as well as Australia and South Africa.

Spokesman Jo Bowler told Reuters in London that deliberations will begin at a meeting in the British capital this week, but that the group is unlikely to make a swift decision.

"It's very unlikely we would get a decision this week, although it's possible that we may get a decision sometime in the next few months," she said.

There are also indications the global financial crisis may hit funding.

The SKA is not an optical telescope. It will use 3,000 receptors to detect radio frequency signals from deep space that will then be processed by a super computer with the processing power of about 1 billion personal computers.

The name comes from the surface area of all the receptors, which will total one square kilometre (0.386 square miles). Its antennas and receptors will be arranged in a five-pronged pinwheel stretching for thousands of kilometers from a hub located in as remote a place as possible so that it is free from radio interference and able to pick up signals from the deepest reaches of the universe.

"The SKA will give astronomers insight into the formation and evolution of the first stars and galaxies after the Big Bang, the role of cosmic magnetism, the nature of gravity, and possibly even life beyond Earth," the consortium said.

Both countries already boast world-class astronomy.

South Africa hosts the Southern African Large Telescope, the largest of its sort in the southern hemisphere. Australia is home to the Deep Space Network tracking station near Canberra used by the U.S. space agency NASA.

Both locations are also sparsely inhabited.

There are far more sheep on South Africa's proposed central site and far more kangaroos on Australia's than people.

($1 = 0.7509 euros)

(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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