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Radio telescope hit by delays

Construction of the Square Kilometre Array telescope is being put back by up to two years, according to the project’s leader.

Speaking at a meeting for business and academia on 20 March, SKA chief executive Philip Diamond said that construction of phase one, the first 10 per cent of the array, has moved to 2017-18, rather than 2016 as originally planned. “We have had inevitable delays,” said Diamond, who was appointed to head the SKA Organisation—which has its global head office at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, although the facilities will be based in South Africa and Australia—in September 2012.

Diamond will present an amended timeline at the next board of directors meeting on 18 and 19 April. The schedule will include: a design review in June 2016, construction of phase one in 2017-18, the first data to be produced by 2019-20, and construction of the rest of the array to begin 2022-25.

The latest budget for the project is €1.7 billion, up from the previous estimate of €1.5bn.

Diamond also revealed that his organisation’s status as a not-for-profit company may not be secure. The company was formed as a legal entity in November 2011 by the original seven member countries—now 10. “The governance structure is under review,” he said. “It may be that a treaty is needed.” Diamond added that the creation of the company in 2011 was an “expedient solution” for a fledging project that needed a legal status. By contrast, the European Extremely Large Telescope is managed by a dedicated division of the European Southern Observatory through a treaty-level organisation.

A spokesman for the Science and Technology Facilities Council confirmed to Research Fortnight that the SKA’s legal structure covers only the design phase of the project. “There is discussion underway right now about what the construction/operation era legal model might be,” he said.

The 10 member countries have provided €23.4 million to date and have promised around €90m to fund design work. This €90m fund will be allocated by national funding councils and signed off by the SKA Organisation. The UK is contributing at least £21m to this design work through the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

The SKA Organisation is accepting bids from academic-industry consortia to design specific aspects of the SKA until 10 June. Successful consortia are expected to be able to begin their design work between July and November.