The discovery of a potentially vast underground gasfield could free South Africa from energy imports, but it also threatens the country's ambition to host the world's biggest and most expensive telescope.
Few countries have been blessed with the wealth of resources South Africa has: gold, platinum, uranium and coal, to name a few. But until now there have been no significant findings of oil or gas; a lack that makes the country a net importer of petroleum products.
South Africa is, however, a leader in the conversion of gas and coal into oil. During the apartheid years the then government used Nazi-era technology to convert coal, of which it has an abundance, into fuel to beat international embargoes.
Sasol, the company that developed this technology and adapted it to convert gas into liquid petroleum, now has similar projects in Qatar, China and other coal and gas-producing countries. It, together with Shell and other partners, has been following promising leads that indicate the country may be sitting on a vast, undiscovered gasfield.
If this turns out to be the case, it would be a "game changer" for South Africa, in the words of Ebbie Haan, the managing director of Sasol Petroleum International.
The energy giant Royal Dutch Shell has already applied to explore 90,000 square km - twice the size of Denmark - for gas deposits. Unfortunately, the field in the arid Karoo desert straddles an area coveted by astronomers for its clear skies and silence, essential conditions for optical and radio telescopes.
So ideal are conditions that South Africa, along with Australia, is short-listed to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.
The SKA will form a giant antenna of 4,000 listening devices that will cover 1 sq km, pointed to the far corners of the universe. At €1.5 billion (Dh7.57bn) and funded by 16 European nations, it will be the most expensive telescope ever built.
It will be up to 100 times more sensitive than any existing radio telescope and help answer fundamental questions about the laws of nature and physics, including the study of "dark energy" and "dark matter".
Scientists have long dreamed of building such a device but it is only in recent years, with the advent of high-speed computers and digital information storing, that it has become possible.
It will allow astronomers to listen in on the most distant corners of the universe and provide a priceless view of galaxies that appear now as distant, twinkling lights.
The South African government has heavily backed the bid to host the SKA, the winner of which will be announced next year.
It has spent 200 million rand (Dh104.5m) so far, and the country already has a substantial, although smaller, observatory in the Karoo, which is in constant demand from foreign and local astronomers.
Dozens of local star gazers, many from poor backgrounds, have been trained in anticipation of winning the bid.
So local scientists and supporters of the SKA bid have reacted with horror at the effect of mining on the bid.
Their chief concern is that to extract shale gas, the earth in which it is found is shattered using a hydraulic process known as fracturing. This, they say, will create noise and vibrations that will interfere with the SKA's operation.
"Telescopes are highly sensitive instruments and if the ground moves beneath them it will be disastrous," says Dr Adrian Tiplady, a spokesman for the SKA project.
"Even the use of hand-held radios can disturb the functioning of radio telescopes. The reason we selected this site is because it was so undisturbed."
The SKA bid is underwritten by the government, which has cherished the goal of developing African scientific achievement. But at the same time, the lure of cheap energy and jobs creation is also compelling.
As a result of the controversy, energy companies are moving cautiously. Phaldie Kalam, a spokesman for Shell, said: "We will obviously have a look and see how our operations will impact on any scientific installations in and around the application area."