France Accedes to the SKAO Convention and Joins the SKA Observatory

French President Emmanuel Macron and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during President Macron’s state visit to South Africa on 28 May 2021

The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, has confirmed the Nation’s emergence as a member of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO). The President announced France’s accession to the intergovernmental organisation while on a state visit to South Africa. 

According to the SKAO, the announcement follows a unanimous decision by the SKAO Council. It makes France the first country to join the Observatory beyond its seven founding members: Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
France’s eagerness to join the SKAO became public when it announced its intentions to seek membership of the SKAO during the founding of the SKA Observatory.

Following the visits, via a joint communique, France and South Africa’s Presidents, Emmanuel Macron and Cyril Ramaphosa discussed the SKA (Square Kilometre Array) project’s target areas and aspects. The communique highlighted aspects including building businesses and entrepreneurs and providing education and skills development for the future as the Project’s target areas.

In welcoming France’s Accession, Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond from the SKAO Global Headquarters commented that “Our French colleagues have extensive expertise in radio astronomy, processing and technology and have been important partners of the project over recent years”. France took part in five of the 11 international engineering consortia designing the SKAO telescopes, including contributions to SKA dishes, low-frequency antennas, receivers and signal processing.

The Director-General further noted French’s contribution to the SKA project, observing that during the pre-construction phase of the SKAO telescopes, French scientists and engineers engaged “very positively in key aspects of the design and SKAO-relevant science, and have built a strong case for investment from their government to support the ambitious goals of the SKAO”. I expect France’s contribution in many areas of the project will be critical over the coming years as we tackle construction and operations.” He concluded.

France first became officially involved in the SKA Project in 2018 through the ‘Maison SKA-France’ consortium. The consortium comprises universities, research organisations and industry, led by the French national research agency CNRS, Europe’s largest research organisation.
The French Ministry in charge of research has been very active in coordinating the preparation of France’s membership, in conjunction with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the SKAO, the SKAO Council, CNRS and the Maison SKA-France consortium.

The SKAO expects that French researchers will directly benefit from the operation of the SKA telescopes in areas such as astrophysics, cosmology, and fundamental physics. Beyond astronomy, there is great potential for important spinoffs and contributions to society in the digital and technological sectors, particularly in the areas of data processing and telecommunications, per SKAO, vis its website.

Further commenting on the accession, SKAO Council Chair, Dr Catherine Cesarsky, noted that it “reflects the strong momentum behind the SKA Observatory following its launch in February, and I warmly welcome France”.  “I know well the enthusiasm of French astronomers for this project, and it is especially positive to see new members joining from beyond the group of countries involved in the SKAO Convention negotiations”.
Importantly, she concluded that the accession is a testament to “how valuable SKAO’s contributions will be not only in science and engineering, but also its much wider impact on society through education and training, and innovations which will find their way to everyday life.”

France has a 70-year history of radio astronomy, and its Nançay Radio-astronomy Station is home to antennas of an International LOFAR station and the New Extension in Nançay Upgrading LOFAR (NenuFAR), both SKA pathfinder facilities.

The SKAO, formally known as the SKA Observatory, is a global collaboration of the Member States whose mission is to build and operate cutting-edge radio telescopes to transform our understanding of the Universe and deliver benefits to society through international cooperation and innovation.