03/26/2012 02:24 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

Square Kilometer Array: World's Most Powerful Radio Telescope In Limbo Over Location (PHOTOS)

It will be 50 times more powerful than any radio telescope now in existence, with 20 countries pitching in to support its massive $2-billion price tag. But the so-called Square Kilometer Array (SKA) remains in limbo, as no one knows quite where to build it.

The gargantuan telescope—which will be so sensitive that it's able to "pick up a mobile phone on Neptune," according to Dr. Brian Boyle of Australia's national science agency—will likely be built in the sparsely populated state of Western Australia or in South Africa's Northern Cape. The SKA's organizers could have a decision as soon as April 4, Scientific American reported. But construction is unlikely to begin until at least 2016, with the project reaching completion no sooner than 2024.

Why so much trouble?

Instead of a single dish, the telescope will have 3,000 fifty-foot-wide antennas arrayed over an area of about 1 square kilometer (about 250 acres). The array must be built in the southern hemisphere, due to its easy access to views of the Milky Way—it also needs to be in a remote area to minimize interference.

"It is possibly the most complex experiment we could possibly do," Dr. Alastair Edge, a physicist at England's Durham University, told CNN. "It has huge potential for allowing us to determine the distance to every galaxy in our local universe."

But when it's complete, it will allow for unprecedented physics experiments, such as tests of Einstein's theory of general relativity using black holes and pulsars. It will also be a major tool for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), according to the SKA website.


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