South Africa led an African consortium that included Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia, and telescopes will be erected in all its partners. In South Africa, dishes will be added to a remote site in the arid Karoo desert where a smaller radio telescope project already is under way.
South Africa and Australia, which partnered with New Zealand in bidding for the project, had competed fiercely. South Africa claimed victory Friday, saying it got two of the projects three major components.
"We may feel slightly disappointed that we didn't get the whole thing. But I think one should emphasize that we did get most of it," said Justin Jonas, the chief South African scientist on the project. "Two-thirds of the biggest instrument in the world is still the biggest instrument in the world."
South Africa's science minister Naledi Pandor and scientists who had prepared the country's bid celebrated with an Africa-shaped cake at a news conference in South Africa's capital.
"This marks a real turning point in Africa, where we are becoming a destination for science and engineering, and not just a place where there are resources and tourism opportunities," Jonas added.
Australia also welcomed the split decision.
"It is an outstanding result for the Australia-New Zealand bid after many years of preparation and an intensive international process," said Sen. Chris Evans, Australia's science minister.
The Square Kilometer Array telescope will be 50 times more sensitive and scan the sky 10,000 times faster than any existing telescope. It requires huge open spaces with very few humans.
John Womersley, chair of the consortium's board, said the telescope will help scientists answer key questions: "Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is this universe we live in?"
"We don't understand what 96 percent of our universe is made of," he said.
The organization said dividing construction of the telescope will "maximize on investments already made by both Australia and South Africa."
Womersley said that splitting construction between the two nations will likely add around 10 percent to the ?350 million ($439 million) cost of the first phase of building the giant telescope. But he said there would be a payoff for astronomers.
"It delivers more science in phase one. The capabilities of this instrument are greater than the original design," Womersley said.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed from Amsterdam.