SKAO Commences Telescope Construction in Australia and South Africa

Press release from SARAO

Dignitaries unveiling the plaque to signal the commencement of construction of the SKA project in the Karoo. Source: SARAO

In ceremonies held at sites in Australia and South Africa on December 5 2022, the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) celebrated the commencement of the construction of its world-leading radio telescopes and announced EUR 300 million worth of construction contracts. This was first disclosed in a press release by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO).

Speaking at the ceremony held in South Africa, the South African Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, congratulated the SKA Observatory on effectively managing the complex process of planning and designing the SKA telescopes.

“I also congratulate SKAO for managing the complex intergovernmental interactions that resulted in the formation of the SKAO itself and the signing of the hosting agreements with Australia and South Africa. I, therefore, try also to reaffirm South Africa’s commitment to the SKA project and pledge the South African government’s continued support for the SKA Observatory as it moves into our country to continue managing the process of construction of the SKA,” said Dr Blade.

Dr Blade also reiterated that the official start of on-site construction of the SKAO telescopes is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate excellence and multilateral collaboration in science and acknowledge the SKAO’s strong bonds with its partner nations. Moreover, this critical milestone heralds a new chapter of direct relationships between SKA Observatory and the local communities around the telescope sites, in particular, building on years of work in community engagement by the SARAO. 

“The South African government welcomes the opportunities that will flow into the country due to the construction activities of the SKA. Local companies will benefit from construction contracts [and] local people will find jobs. In addition, the financial resources flowing into the country will also uplift the economy of South Africa,” concluded Dr Blade.

Source: SARAO

Click here to watch the Minister’s complete statement.

The SKAO’s Director-General, Prof. Philip Diamond, travelled to Western Australia to represent the Observatory at the site of the future SKA-Low telescope. While the Council Chair, Dr Catherine Cesarsky, attended the event in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, where the SKA-Mid telescope will be located.

In her address, Dr Cesarsky said: “The SKA project has been many years in the making. Today, we gather here to mark another important chapter in this 30-year journey that we’ve been on together. A journey to deliver the world’s largest scientific instrument. After 18 months of intense activities worldwide, we are starting construction of the SKA telescopes.”

Over the past 18 months, the observatory has entered over 40 contracts worth more than EUR 150 million. In addition, major new construction contracts worth over EUR 300 million were announced during the ceremonies held at both sites.

Minister Ed Husic from Australia and South Africa’s Dr Blade Nzimande announced more than EUR 200 million for Australian and South African companies to deliver some of the extensive infrastructure required for the telescopes.

In addition, the SKAO also announced the major contracts – worth EUR 100 million – to manufacture the antennas for both telescopes, bringing the total current construction funds allocated by the observatory to close to EUR 500 million.

The construction commencement ceremonies took place 18 months after the SKAO’s Council approved the building of its two telescopes. Initial procurement concentrated on developing software, contracting professional services firms to help oversee construction and bulk-buying components such as programmable circuit boards currently in short supply worldwide.

These 40 or so contracts paved the way for construction to start on-site. In South Africa, this phase will eventually see 133 SKA dishes added to the existing 64 of the SKA-precursor telescope MeerKAT to form a mid-frequency instrument. On the other hand, Australia will host a low-frequency array of 131,072 antennas shaped like Christmas trees, allowing the two telescopes to cover a wide swath of radio frequencies.

The telescopes require vast infrastructure. Listed company Ventia will build site-wide power and fibre infrastructure in the SKA-Low telescope’s core and spiral arms and fabricate and commission the central and remote processing facilities. The Power Adenco joint venture in South Africa will construct gravel access roads, cast dish foundations, lay on power and optical fibre networks, erect security fencing, and more.

Competitive tendering also took place to procure the telescopes’ lead components: the antennas and dishes. On Friday, 2 December, the SKAO finalised the two contracts for this critical hardware.

Italian company SIRIO will build the low-frequency antennas for the SKA-Low telescope in Western Australia, with important participation from the UK. In China, one of the Observatory’s long-term partners, CETC54, will manufacture the SKA-Mid telescope’s dish structure. Parts will be produced in several countries, including Italy, Spain, and South Africa.

In their announcements, the science ministers elaborated on the contractual conditions that the SKAO placed on infrastructure providers to include local communities. For example, in South Africa, the lead infrastructure contractor is required to spend a proportionate amount locally by providing a range of sub-contract opportunities to local SMMEs, on employing, training and transferring skills locally and on other community development initiatives.

Kindly check here for additional information regarding the ceremony.

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