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Construction of Square Kilometre Array commences

Today, SKA Observatory celebrates the start of on-site construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). As one of the founding SKA members, ASTRON is proud to be a part of the international partnership set out to realize the most sensitive radio telescope in the world.

Published by the editorial team, 5 December 2022

The Construction Commencement Ceremony follows eighteen months after the SKAO’s Council approved the building of the SKA-Mid radio telescope in South Africa and the SKA-Low radio telescope in Western Australia. South Africa will see 133 SKA dishes added to the existing 64 of the SKA-precursor telescope MeerKAT to form a mid-frequency instrument. Australia will host a low-frequency telescope array of 131,072 antennas, each two metres tall and shaped like Christmas trees.

SKA-Low Artist Impression
Artist’s impression of the SKA-Low antennas in Australia. (Credit: SKAO)

SKAO Council Chair Dr Catherine Cesarsky travelled to the Northern Cape province, to represent the Observatory at the site of the future SKA-Mid telescope in South Africa; Director-General Prof Phil Diamond attended a similar ceremony in Western Australia, where the SKA-Low telescope will be constructed. Both construction sites were officially declared open for construction by their national science ministers.

In South Africa, a group of dancers from the area performed a special ‘meerkat’ version of the ancient riel dance at the first SKA dish foundation. In Australia, the native title holders and Traditional Owners of the SKA-Low site – the Wajarri Yamaji – conducted a traditional Welcome to Country.

Unravel the mysteries of the Universe

Together, these two radio telescopes will form the world’s largest and most capable radio astronomy instrument, which will be managed from SKAO-headquarters at Jodrell Bank near Manchester (UK). Both radio telescopes have been designed as interferometers, which means that the signals of multiple telescopes can be combined to function as a one giant telescope. The aimed lifespan for the SKAO will be fifty years, in which astronomers hope to find answers to crucial questions such as: will Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity also hold in extreme environments and help date when and how the stars began to shine after the Big Bang.

Artist impression of the SKA-Mid telescope in South Africa.
Artist’s impression of the SKA-Mid telescope in South Africa. (Credit: SKAO)

Dutch minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf said: “The Netherlands has a long tradition in radio astronomy and contributed to the SKA radio telescope from the beginning – thirty years ago. Today marks an important milestone with the beginning of the construction on the two sites in Australia and South Africa. We are extremely proud to be a founding member of this remarkable, prestigious research project that is at the very cutting edge of research. By investing in this important experiment, we are not only contributing to our understanding of the Universe, but are also contributing to the greater benefit of society by stimulating global collaboration and innovation.”

ASTRON involved in two contracts

Although today marks the official start of the construction, global construction activities already commenced in July 2021, and already more than forty contracts with a total worth of approximately €150 million have been awarded. 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.

ASTRON is already taking part in two contracts. One to develop software that not only can handle the vast amounts of data that SKA-Low will produce, but also to make these data easily accessible to astronomers in a user-friendly way. As part of Team Schaap, ASTRON is developing this software together with the Dutch companies CGI Space, S[&]T, and TriOpSys.

The other contract involves the development of the central signal processor (CSP) for SKA-Low; a consortium led by the Dutch company TOPIC is currently developing this central processing ‘brain’ of SKA-Low.

The aim of the SKAO is to have the first four SKA-Mid dishes and six SKA-Low antenna stations working together as a basic telescope in 2024.

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