SKA Observatory launch signals new era for radio astronomy

SKAO is the world’s second intergovernmental organisation dedicated to radio astronomy. It is headquartered in the United Kingdom with sites in Australia and South Africa.

SKAO is born
Credit: SARAO

The new Observatory, known as SKAO, is the world’s second intergovernmental organisation dedicated to astronomy. Headquartered in the UK on the Jodrell Bank UNESCO World Heritage Site grounds with sites in Australia and South Africa, SKAO is tasked with building and operating the two largest and most complex radio telescope networks ever conceived to address fundamental questions about our universe.

“This is a historic moment for radio astronomy,” said Dr Catherine Cesarsky, appointed the first Chair of the SKAO Council. “Behind today’s milestone, there are countries that had the vision to get deeply involved because they saw the wider benefits their participation in SKAO could bring to build an ecosystem of science and technology involving fundamental research, computing, engineering, and skills for the next generation, which is essential in the 21st-century digital economy.”

SKAO’s telescope in South Africa will be composed of 197 15 metre-diameter dishes located in the Karoo region, 64 of which already exist and are operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO). In contrast, Australia’s telescope will be composed of 131,072 two-metre-tall antennas located on the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.

The creation of SKAO follows a decade of detailed engineering design workscientific prioritisation, and policy development under the supervision of its predecessor the SKA Organisation, supported by more than 500 engineers, over 1,000 scientists and dozens of policy-makers in more than 20 countries. It resulted from 30 years of thinking and research and development since discussions first took place about developing a next-generation radio telescope.

“Today marks the birth of a new Observatory,” said Prof. Philip Diamond, appointed first Director-General of SKAO. “And not just any observatory – this is one of the mega-science facilities of the 21st century. It is the culmination of many years of work, and I wish to congratulate everyone in the SKA community and our partner governments and institutions who have worked so hard to make this happen. This is about participating in one of the great scientific adventures of the coming decades for our community. It is about skills, technology, innovation, industrial return, and spin-offs, but fundamentally it is about a wonderful scientific journey that we are now embarking on.”

The first SKAO Council meeting follows the signature of the SKA treaty, formally known as the Convention establishing the SKA Observatory, on 12 March 2019 in Rome, and its subsequent ratification by AustraliaItalythe NetherlandsPortugalSouth Africa and the United Kingdom and entry into force on 15 January 2021, marking the official birth date of the observatory.

The Council is composed of representatives from the Observatory’s Member States and Observer countries aspiring to join SKAO. Among these are countries that took part in the SKA design phase, such as Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, and whose future accession to SKAO is expected in the coming weeks and months, once their national processes have been completed. Representatives of national bodies in Japan and South Korea complement the Observers’ select list in the SKAO Council.

At its first meeting, the SKAO Council approved policies and procedures that have been prepared in recent months – covering governance, funding, programmatic and HR matters, among others. These approvals are required to transfer staff and assets from the SKA Organisation to the Observatory and allow the latter to become a functioning entity.

“The coming months will keep us very busy, with hopefully new countries formalising their accession to SKAO and the expected key decision of the SKAO Council giving us the green light to start the construction of the telescopes,” added Prof. Diamond.

SKAO will begin recruitment in Australia and South Africa in the next few months, working alongside local partners CSIRO and SARAO to supervise construction, which is expected to last eight years, with early science opportunities starting in the mid-2020s.

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