Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) was on Thursday officially launched at its headquarters at Jodrell Bank UNESCO World Heritage Site in the UK. The observatory is “a global collaboration of member states to build and operate cutting-edge radio telescopes to answer fundamental questions about our Universe”. The launch is the outcome of over 30 years of thinking and research and development since discussions first took place about developing a next-generation radio telescope.
SKAO is currently building its first two “largest and most complex radio telescope networks in Australia and South Africa”. Plans are afoot to expand the projects in these two countries and other African partner countries.
Dr Catherine Cesarsky, who was appointed first chair of the SKAO council, described the launch as “a historic moment for radio astronomy”. She said: “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 are essential in a 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). The Australia 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, said the SKAO statement.
The SKAO came about after decade-long detailed engineering design work, scientific prioritisation, and policy development under the supervision of its predecessor the SKA Organisation. According to the SKAO’s statement, this is supported by more than 500 engineers, over 1,000 scientists and dozens of policy-makers in more than 20 countries.
Professor Philip Diamond, who was appointed first director-general of SKAO, was equally ecstatic about the launch saying, “today marks the birth of a new Observatory”. He said this is “not just any observatory” rather, “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 in our partner governments and institutions who have worked so hard to make this happen”.
Added Professor Diamong, “for our community, this is about participating in one of the great scientific adventures of the coming decades. 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.”
South Africa’s minister of higher education, science & innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande also praised the launch: “Establishment of the SKA Observatory enables the SKA project to enter an exciting phase – implementation of cutting edge scientific and technical designs that have been conceptualised by multinational teams, including many South African scientists and engineers, over the past few years.”
He said he is excited by the fact that the SKA Observatory will be the first, and only, science inter-governmental organisation where Africa will play a strategic leading role. “The SKA project will act as a catalyst for science, technology and engineering innovation, providing commercial opportunities to local high-tech industry, and creating the potential to put Africa on the map as a global science and innovation partner,” said Dr. Nzimande.
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, said the statement. This was subsequently ratified by Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom and it took effect from 15 January 2021, marking the official birth date of the observatory.
The council comprises representatives from the Observatory’s member states, as well as observer countries aspiring to join SKAO. Among these are countries that took part in the design phase of the SKA such as Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. It is anticipated that these countries will confirm their membership to SKAO “in the coming weeks and months, once their national processes have been completed”. Representatives of national bodies in Japan and South Korea complement the select list of observers in the SKAO council.
According to the SKAO, the first meeting of the 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.
Professor Diamond said the coming months will be very hectic as the new countries will formalise their “accession to SKAO”. He added that they also expect the SKAO council to give them “green light to start the construction of the telescopes”.
SKAO will begin recruitment in Australia and South Africa in the next few months, working alongside local partners CSIRO and SARAO to supervise construction. The construction is expected to take eight years to complete and it is anticipated to create a lot of science related opportunities in the middle of the 2020s.
Other SKAO member countries sent their statements in support of the “historic” launch. They include: Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, UK, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden.
For their full statements click here