THERE is no new date for the delayed announcement of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope site, local and international officials say.

SA and Australia are bidding to host the world's largest radio telescope with a price tag of R23bn, which will be funded by an international consortium.

A decision was expected at the SKA founding board's meeting on April 4, but its chairman John Womersley said yesterday: "It is not likely that this meeting will make a final decision on the site; rather it will be the start of a process of discussion and negotiation between the members."

SKA SA director Bernie Fanaroff yesterday confirmed that a "negotiation process" would start on April 4.

Michiel van Haarlem, SKA Organisation interim director-general, said he had "no indication" how long it would take to arrive at a decision.

There is speculation that the delay was caused by Australia and New Zealand raising concerns about a recommendation by the site advisory committee.

Department of Science and Technology director-general Phil Mjwara said the last SKA board meeting had tried to address Australia's concerns, but some were still outstanding. "The board has decided to table the issues for members to consider," he said.

Last month, two Australian newspapers reported that the site committee had found SA's proposed site technically superior to Australia's. SKA representatives would not confirm the reports.

Australian Science Minister Chris Evans caused a stir two weeks ago when he reportedly said that an "aid mind-set" aimed at developing Africa was Australia's main impediment to hosting the SKA. He vetoed the idea of SA and Australia sharing the sprawling telescope, which will consist of 3000 antennae. But Dr Fanaroff said a possible area for negotiation was "how both countries can stay in the process".

"All the countries now want to finalise the site decision as a matter of urgency, so the work on the SKA can carry on," Dr Fanaroff said. "It is impossible to prognosticate. Everyone is hoping it won't take longer than a couple of months."

wilds@bdfm.co.za