The SKA Observatory (SKAO) Member States have approved the construction of the SKA telescopes in Australia and South Africa. The two telescopes are currently bearing SKA-Low and SKA-Mid, names that describe the radio frequency range they each cover. The telescopes will be the two largest and most complex networks of radio telescopes ever built.
The decision to approve construction follows the creation of the SKAO as an intergovernmental organisation earlier this year. It also follows the publication of two key documents last year. These documents are; the Observatory’s Construction Proposal and Observatory Establishment and Delivery Plan. The documents culminate over seven years of design and engineering work by more than 500 experts from 20 countries. This work has been to develop and test the technologies needed to build and operate the state-of-the-art telescopes. Eleven international consortia designed the antennas, networks, computing, software, and infrastructure needed for the telescopes to function. These international consortia include over 100 institutions, including research labs, universities, and companies worldwide.
“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.”
“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.”
Dr Catherine Cesarsky, Chairperson of the SKAO Council, commented that “I would like to add my thanks to the members of the SKAO Council and the governments they represent”. She added that “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.” Furthermore, Dr Cesarsky added that “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,”
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. Therefore, 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. For example, the successful completion of the ratification process of the SKAO treaty by all seven initial signatories. Another is the excellent progress from France and Spain towards membership of the Observatory. Another is the signature of a cooperation agreement with Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne on behalf of Switzerland. The Swiss government announced its intention to eventually join the SKAO, pending approval from Parliament on the funding required for the participation of Switzerland until 2030. In addition, 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.
The cost of constructing the two telescopes and the associated operations and business-enabling functions will be €2billion over the period 2021 – 2030.
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. For example, close to 1,000 scientists took part in the latest SKAO Science Meeting in March. In addition, more than 1,000 researchers are involved in the SKAO’s Science Working Groups. These researchers come from hundreds of institutions across 40 countries. These working are working to ensure that humankind can promptly realise the maximum science potential of the new observatory.
There has been significant engagement between the SKAO’s local partners and local communities in preparation for construction. For example, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) has an MoU with Agri-SA. This is as many of Agri-SA members own farms that share boundaries with the MeerKAT radio telescope core. Furthermore, some of its members’ farms will host antennas part of the SKA-Mid telescope in the three spiral arms. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is the SKAO’s local partner in Australia.
Respectful dialogue and engagement with Indigenous communities have also been a hallmark of the project. As a result, a Memorandum of Understanding between the San Council of South Africa and SARAO was signed. Furthermore, just last week, the Wajarri Yamaji granted their support in principle. The Wajarri Yamaji are the traditional owners of the land on which the SKA-Low telescope will be built.
“The SKAO will be a good neighbour and will work with local stakeholders, and in particular Indigenous communities, to ensure that they also benefit from the SKA project alongside other stakeholders nationally and internationally,” added Prof. Diamond. “We certainly intend to play our part in supporting local communities and boosting the local economy.”
The procurement of major contracts for the SKA telescopes will start immediately. Furthermore, the SKAO have already conducted some market surveys in the past few weeks. Over the coming months, the SKAO will place some 70 contracts within its Member States. Competitive bidding will subsequently begin within each country.
The first significant activity on site is due to happen early next year, with the telescope’s construction lasting until 2028. Thus, early science opportunities will start in the next few years. They will take advantage of the nature of radio telescope arrays, also known as interferometers. The interferometers will consequently allow observations with only a subset of the full array. The telescopes will have a productive scientific lifetime of 50 years or more.
For more information on the approval and on the SKA project, please visit here.
Faleti Joshua is an avid lover of space in all its incomprehensible nature. He holds both an LL.B and a B.L degree. Joshua is a lover of music and a lawyer in his free time.