Star wars: UK threatens to pull out of telescope project if Italy is named its HQ

BIS: "All things being equal… it makes no sense to transfer leadership"

The battle between Italy and the UK to host the headquarters of the world’s biggest radio telescope has escalated after the British government threatened to pull out of the multi-national project if Cheshire loses to Padua.

In an increasingly fraught competition between the UK’s Jodrell Bank Observatory and Italy’s Castello Carrarese, the governments of the two countries have been involved in furious lobbying.

It emerged that the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills had even threatened to pull out of the project if the UK – which provides the telescope’s temporary headquarters – doesn’t get the permanent “leadership” role of the 11-country project.


“All things being equal – which they are in terms of meeting the HQ criteria – it makes no sense to dramatically increase the risk of the project by changing leadership from the UK to Italy… Transferring leadership would require the UK to radically reassess participation,” the department wrote to the project’s board members in a letter first reported by the journal Nature.

Although the panel nominated by the telescope’s board did conclude that both sites would be up to the task, it found the Italian bid a clear winner. However, the competition has been extended to include other considerations following lobbying.

Night falls over radio telescope dishes at the proposed South African site for the Square Kilometre Array telescope (Getty)

The Square Kilometre Array telescope will be in South Africa and Australia, but the headquarters will be crucial to its running, housing scientists who will control what it observes. The cost of the telescope has been estimated at £2bn. It is so large that it will be spread across two continents, involving 2,500 radio dishes and one million antennas over thousands of kilometres. Construction is due to begin at the end of 2017 and it will become fully operational by 2024. The telescope will help scientists to study the birth of the Universe by looking back to the “cosmic dawn” – about half a million years after the Big Bang, when the Universe cooled enough for matter to condense and begin the process of the creation of galaxies, stars and planets. It also provides by far the best chance yet of finding an advanced alien civilisation.

It will be a virtual radio telescope and more than 50 times more sensitive than any radio telescope, surpassing even the Hubble Space Telescope.