Launch of international SKA Observatory, broadens era of radio astronomy

Ska Observatory

The SKA Observatory, a new intergovernmental organisation dedicated to radio astronomy, was launched following the first meeting of the Observatory’s Council.

The new Observatory, known as SKAO, is the world’s second intergovernmental organisation to be dedicated to astronomy, headquartered in the UK on the grounds of the Jodrell Bank UNESCO World Heritage Site with sites in Australia and South Africa.

SKAO, otherwise Square Kilometre Array, is tasked with building and operating the two largest and most complex radio telescope networks ever conceived to address fundamental questions about our universe.

Dr Catherine Cesarsky, appointed first Chair of the SKAO Council, said “This is a historic moment for radio astronomy.”

“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, fifteen-metre-diameter dishes located in the Karoo region, 64 of which already exist and are operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), while the telescope in Australia 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 work, scientific 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; and is the result of 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 in our partner governments and institutions who have worked so hard to make this happen.

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.”

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

The Council is composed of 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, 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 select list of Observers 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 green light to start the construction of the telescopes,” added Prof. Diamond.

Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, Science & Innovation said “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.”

“We are 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 the local high-tech industry, and creating the potential to put Africa on the map as a global science and innovation partner.”

The SKAO could be described as “A physics machine for the 21st century” because it will not only be a tool for astronomers, but also for solar, atmospheric, ionospheric physicists, tele-medicine and others.

Indeed eight African countries are at various levels of preparation to partner SKA South Africa. They include Ghana, Botswana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia, which are poised to fulfill this dream.

Ghana has made tremendous progress becoming the first partner country of the African Very Large Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) Network (AVN) to complete the conversion of a communications antenna into a functioning radio telescope.

The 32-metre converted telecommunications antenna at the Ghana Intelsat Satellite Earth Station at Kutunse, near Accra, has been integrated into the African VLBI Network (AVN) in preparation for the second phase construction of the SKA across the African continent.

The combination ‘first light’ science observations, which are signals from the telescope confirm that the instrument can operate as a single dish radio telescope and also as part of global VLBI network observations, such as the European VLBI network.

Following this progress research teams from Ghana and South Africa together with other international partners, continue to do more observations and are analysing the data generated with the aim to characterise the system and improve its accuracy for future experiments.

“The government warmly embraces the prospect of radio astronomy in the country and our radio astronomy development plan forms part of the broader Ghana Science, Technology and Innovation Development Plan,” says Professor Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, the former Minister of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation.

President Nana Addo Dankwah Akufo-Addo, commissioning the Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory on August 24, 2017, said plans were afoot to establish a National Space Data Centre for satellite data collection, management and application believing this would expand the frontiers in space science.

Financial resources is akin to actualizing these dreams and the President’s announcement to prop up funding for research and development (R&D) for science and technology sectors from the current 0.25 to one percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and eventually scale to 2.5 in the long-run is welcoming.

Some of the benefits of the SKA beyond the sciences would include enhancement of global and trans-cultural collaboration in the advancement of knowledge, the sustainable development of energy sources and energy-sufficient processes, as well as new data processing techniques and communication strategies and technologies to distribute large packets of data quickly around the world.

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