The recent decision by the Council of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio astronomy Observatory (SKAO) to formally start construction on Thursday (July 1) is the result of more than seven years of design and engineering work. These endeavours were consolidated in two key documents, published last year, namely the Observatory Construction Proposal and the Observatory Establishment and Delivery Plan.
This essential work was carried out by more than 500 experts from 20 countries, including countries that have not yet formally joined the SKAO. The antennas, computing systems, networks, software and infrastructure necessary to make possible the two SKA arrays (one each in South Africa and Australia) were designed and developed by 11 international consortia representing more than 100 institutions. These institutions included companies, research laboratories and universities.
“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,” highlighted SKAO director-general Professor Philip Diamond. “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.”
The SKAO currently has seven full (and founder) members, namely Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the UK. “[The] 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,” affirmed SKAO Council chairperson Dr Catherine Cesarsky. France, Spain and Switzerland have already started their internal processes for joining the SKAO as full members, and currently have observer status at the SKAO Council. Other countries with observer status, but which have not yet commenced their processes to join the SKAO, are Canada, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea and Sweden.
The SKAO array in South Africa, which will cover the middle of the radio frequency spectrum, will be composed of 197 dishes, including the 64 already existing dishes of the MeerKAT radio telescope array. MeerKAT was designed and built as a precursor to the SKA. The SKAO array in Australia, which will cover the low end of the radio frequency spectrum, will be made up of 131 072 antennas, including the already-operating prototypes.
“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,” assured Diamond. “We certainly intend to play our part in supporting local communities and boosting the local economy.”