Speculation is growing that South Africa and Australia may be asked to join forces in building and operating the Square Kilometre Array – the world's most powerful radio telescope – following a decision last week to delay an announcement on where it will ultimately be based.
Scientists hope the telescope will help answer fundamental questions about the universe, including its origin and evolution, and whether it contains life beyond our planet.
Both countries had previously been asked to submit separate bids for the telescope, which is likely to cost at least $US2 billion, and whose 3,000 receptors have been designed to make the telescope 50 times more sensitive to radio waves than any existing facility.
The SKA Organisation – the international consortium responsible for the project – had been due to announce which bid had been successful last week, but at the end of a two-day meeting in the Netherlands, it issued a statement on 4 April saying that its members had recognised that it was "desirable to maintain an inclusive approach".
The statement added that the members considered it to be "important to maximise the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions". As a result, a small scientific working group has been set up "to explore possible implementation options that would achieve this".
Officials from the organisation have declined to elaborate further or to provide any further details on what these options might be, citing the need to keep the negotiations confidential.
One possibility that has been raised is that receptors built in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – which is a partner to the Australian bid – might be programmed to operate jointly.
However other commentators question whether the two sets of receptors can look at the same part of the sky simultaneously, given that Australia and South Africa are on opposite sides of the Southern hemisphere.
Unconfirmed reports in the Australian media have suggested that a panel of scientific experts had given their preference to the South Africa bid, which would involve building receiving stations in at least eight other African nations.
South Africa's Science Ministry has strongly rejected suggestions that this option represented a "sympathy decision". Officials insist the country has the capacity to host the facility, and supporters of the South African bid have also emphasised the potential role of the SKA project to boost the image of science and technology in Africa.
In an interview with SciDev.Net last year, the director of the South African bid, Bernie Fanaroff, described the importance of the SKA project for its potential to create "a significant legacy of skills and be a continuing attraction for young people in Africa to enter careers in science and technology".
However the South African Ministry of Science and Technology has been quoted as describing accusations that such arguments had been used to sway the site adjudication process as "a not very subtle attempt to undermine [its] scientific and technical rigour".
A final decision on the choice of the site is now due to be announced next month.