Editor's Choice

Construction of world’s largest radio telescope arrays green-lighted

29 September 2021 Editor's Choice News

A project with truly astronomical ambitions took a decisive step along its decades-long journey recently when the member states of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) approved the start of construction of the SKA telescopes in Australia and South Africa. The two telescopes, currently designated SKA-Low and SKA-Mid, names which describe the radio frequency range they each cover, will be the two largest and most complex networks of radio telescopes ever built.

The decision to approve construction followed the creation of the SKAO as an intergovernmental organisation earlier this year and the publication of two key documents, the Observatory’s Construction Proposal and Observatory Establishment and Delivery Plan, last year. The documents are the culmination of over seven years of design and engineering work by more than 500 experts from 20 countries to develop and test the technologies needed to build and operate the state-of-the-art telescopes. Eleven international consortia representing more than 100 institutions including research labs, universities and companies from around the world designed the antennas, networks, computing, software and infrastructure needed for the telescopes to function.

“I am ecstatic. This moment has been 30 years in the making,” said SKAO director-general, Prof. Philip Diamond. “Today, humankind is taking another giant leap by committing to build what will be the largest science facility of its kind on the planet; not just one but the two largest and most complex radio telescope networks, designed to unlock some of the most fascinating secrets of our universe.”

Excitement building

In addition to delivering exciting and revolutionary science, the construction of the SKA telescopes will produce tangible societal and economic benefits for countries involved in the project through direct and indirect economic returns from innovation and technological spin-offs, new high-tech jobs and boosted industrial capacity, among others. The well-documented impact prospect of the SKA project (detailed in the construction proposal), outlining the multiple benefits already flowing to member states and their communities thanks to their involvement in SKA-related activities over the last few years, was a key part of the case for the project.

The SKA project has seen impressive progress in recent months, with the successful completion of the ratification process of the SKAO treaty by all seven initial signatories (Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom), progress from France and Spain towards membership and the signature of a co-operation agreement with Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne on behalf of Switzerland. Other countries, including those that also took part in the design phase of the SKA telescopes (Canada, Germany, India and Sweden) and other more recent joiners such as Japan and South Korea, complete the select list of observers in the council.

Over the past few years, the excitement in the science community about using the SKA telescopes to answer some of the most fundamental questions about our universe has been growing. Recent meetings have demonstrated this huge scientific interest, with close to 1000 scientists taking part in the latest SKAO Science Meeting in March of this year. More than 1000 researchers from hundreds of institutions across 40 countries are involved in the SKAO’s Science Working Groups that are working to ensure that the maximum science potential of the new observatory can be quickly realised.

Community engagement

There has been significant engagement between the SKAO’s local partners, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and local communities in preparation for the start of construction. In South Africa, SARAO has a memorandum of understanding with Agri-SA, many of whose members own farms which share boundaries with the MeerKAT radio telescope core or will host antennas that form part of the SKA-Mid telescope in the three spiral arms.

Respectful dialogue and engagement with indigenous communities has also been a hallmark of the project, with the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the San Council of South Africa and SARAO, and in‑principle support for the project from Australia’s Wajarri Yamaji, the traditional owners of the land on which the SKA-Low telescope will be built.

Preparations in full swing

Procurement of major contracts for the SKA telescopes is already underway and over the coming months some 70 contracts will be placed by the SKAO within its member states, with competitive bidding taking place within each country. All told, the cost of constructing the two telescopes and the associated operations and business-enabling functions will be 2 billion Euros over the period 2021 to 2030.

The first significant activity on site is due to happen early next year, with construction of the telescopes lasting until 2028. Early science opportunities will start in the next few years, taking advantage of the nature of radio telescope arrays, also known as interferometers, which allow observations with only a subset of the full array. The telescopes are planned to have a productive scientific lifetime of 50 years or more.

For more information visit www.sarao.ac.za

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