This artist's impression shows the 80 dishes of the MeerKAT radio telescope. Credit: Jeroen de Boer

One of South Africa's top astronomers has been suspended following allegations that he leaked confidential documents about a planned telescope.

Phil Charles, director of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Cape Town, was removed from his post by South Africa's main funding agency, the National Research Foundation (NRF), pending a disciplinary hearing next week.

The affair is linked to claims that Charles shared details with academic colleagues about where the operations centre for the new MeerKAT radio telescope, currently under construction in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape Province, might be based (note: this was subsequently denied by the NRF, see update below). The two sites under consideration are at the headquarters of the SAAO in the Cape Town suburb of Observatory, and a nearby site at Ysterplaat, used as an air base by the South African Air Force.

The decision has broad implications, because MeerKAT is a prototype for a powerful radio telescope called the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). South Africa and Australia are both bidding to host the telescope — a decision on where it will be built is expected by the end of 2012.

"The [operations centre] site has to be large enough to allow expansion into an SKA science centre should South Africa be successful in winning the bid," explains radio astronomer Bernie Fanaroff, director of South Africa's SKA project. There have also been preliminary discussions about building a national institute of astronomy on the same site.

Fanaroff insists that the SKA project was not involved in Charles's suspension, and Charles himself declined to discuss the matter before next week's hearing. But colleagues have rallied to his defence.

Renée Kraan-Korteweg, head of the only astronomy department in the country — at the University of Cape Town — said that she "stood fully in support of Charles, who is working very hard for astronomy in South Africa".

Robin Crewe, president of the Academy of Science of South Africa, of which Charles is a member, said that "his treatment is of concern to the Academy, in the absence of any more detailed information regarding the case".

Growing concern

Charles was appointed to his position in 2004 on a five-year contract. This was renewed last year by the NRF until September 2011, when he is due to return to the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, where he holds a chair in astronomy and from which he is on leave of absence.

The director-general of the government's Department of Science and Technology, Phil Mjwara, says that his department (the foundation's main source of funds) had been informed, but "would not intervene unless invited to do so as a last resort — for example, in the event of procedures reaching a deadlock."

In a statement the NRF said: "The alleged leaking of internal working documents or information has, unfortunately, caused undue distress amongst our local and international partners."

"We are confident that the internal processes which have been initiated will deal with this matter speedily and fairly and that the organization will return to normality soon," added Patrick Thompson, the foundation's executive for human resources and stakeholder relations.

But there is growing concern among astronomers that the affair could hamper South Africa's high-stakes bid to build SKA. After it was short-listed alongside Australia, the government allocated R1.9 billion (US$0.27 billion) between 2009 and 2012 to construct a prototype and build up the country's capacity in radioastronomy. Amounting to 14% of the annual budget of the Department of Science and Technology, it is South Africa's most costly science project to date. If the country wins the bid, the construction cost for SKA is estimated at more than $2 billion.

Charles's suspension may also delay operations at the Southern African Large Telescope, the country's largest optical telescope, in Sutherland. Charles has direct responsibility for the facility, which has been out of commission since April 2009 due to technical difficulties with key components. Although these have been fixed, they have yet to be installed, holding up observations.