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Green light for R34bn SKA telescopes construction in SA, Australia

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The two SKA sites in Australia and South Africa will look like this when the telescopes are complete. (Source: SKA Observatory)
The two SKA sites in Australia and South Africa will look like this when the telescopes are complete. (Source: SKA Observatory)

At a historic meeting of its council last week, the recently formed SKA Observatory (SKAO) saw its member states approve the start of construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescopes in South Africa and Australia.

The SKA is an intergovernmental radio telescope project being planned to be built in the two countries. Conceived in the 1990s, and further developed and designed by the late-2010s, when completed, it will have a total collecting area of approximately one square kilometre.

It will operate over a wide range of frequencies and its size will make it 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument.

In a statement, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) says 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 cost of constructing the two telescopes and the associated operations and business-enabling functions will be €2 billion (R34 billion) over the period 2021 to 2030, says SARAO.

SARAO believes the first significant activity on site is due to happen early next year, with construction of the telescopes lasting until 2028.

The organisation says 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.

Procurement of major contracts for the SKA telescopes will start immediately, with some market surveys having already been conducted in the past few weeks.

SARAO says 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.

The news comes as MeerKAT, precursor to the SKA radio telescope, continues to make ground-breaking discoveries.

A new study using the MeerKAT radio telescope recently produced a striking image showing a combination of cosmic features never before seen, revealing unexpected details of the inner workings of enormous radio galaxies.

Seven-year effort

SARAO notes the decision to approve construction follows 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.

According to SARAO, 11 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,” says SKAO director-general Professor 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.

“I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to making this possible over the past decades, from the early inception of the project until now, and in particular, all the teams who have worked so hard over recent years and powered on through a pandemic in very difficult circumstances to meet deadlines and make this milestone possible. I would also like to thank our member states for their vision and the trust they’re placing in us by investing in a large-scale, long-term research infrastructure at a time when public finances are under intense pressure.”

“I would like to add my thanks to the members of the SKAO Council and the governments they represent,” says Dr Catherine Cesarsky, chairperson of the SKAO Council.

“Giving the green light to start the construction of the SKA telescopes shows their confidence in the professional work that’s been done by the SKAO to get here, with a sound plan that is ready for implementation, and in the bright future of this ground-breaking research facility.”

In addition to delivering exciting and revolutionary science, SARAO notes 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.

It points out that 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 organisation notes 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 UK; excellent progress from France and Spain towards membership of the observatory; and the signature of a cooperation agreement with Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne on behalf of Switzerland, with the Swiss government announcing its intention to eventually join the SKAO, pending approval from Parliament on the funding required for the participation of Switzerland until 2030.

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.

“Today’s commitment by member states is a strong signal for others to get aboard and reap the benefits of participation in this one-of-a-kind research facility,” adds Cesarsky.

Solving mysteries

Over the past few years, SARAO notes 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.

It explains that recent meetings have demonstrated this huge scientific interest, with close to 1 000 scientists taking part in the latest SKAO Science Meeting in March.

More than 1 000 researchers from hundreds of institutions across 40 countries are involved in the SKAO’s Science Working Groups that are working to ensure the maximum science potential of the new observatory can be quickly realised.

There has been significant engagement between the SKAO’s local partners, SARAO and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and local communities in preparation for the start of construction.

In SA, 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 as part of the SKA-Mid telescope in the three spiral arms.

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