ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, is excited that the Netherlands will partner in the construction and management of the largest radio telescope in the world, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). This ambitious project will lead to major discoveries about the nature of our Universe and answer longstanding questions. The Dutch Council of Ministers has decided that the Netherlands will sign the treaty to establish the international SKA observatory. ASTRON coordinates the Dutch participation in the SKA.
Construction of the SKA will move forward over the next few years. On 12 March 2019 the international partners, now including the Netherlands, will sign a treaty agreement in Rome. The 30 million Euros allocated by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is the basis for Dutch participation to realise the SKA.
“These are exciting times for us”, says Prof. Carole Jackson, Director General of ASTRON. “The Netherlands will be a full partner in this massive global telescope to probe some of the mysteries of the Universe. We are thrilled that the Government has decided to invest in this way.”
Nine multinational consortia are finalising the design of the SKA, which is planned to start construction in 2021. ASTRON leads the consortium that develops SKA's antenna stations in Western Australia and also plays a major role in two other consortia that design solutions to combine and further process the enormous amounts of data produced by the antennas.
The SKA will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world. In Western Australia, the telescope will consist of 130,000 antennas spread over 512 antenna fields. The design is based on ASTRON's Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) telescope. With all these antennas SKA will generate enormous amounts of data: one petabit per second - more than three times the global internet traffic in 2018.
A network of SKA Regional Centres will process and archive the SKA data , distilling its huge volume into scientific discoveries. The Netherlands will set up a Science Data Center (SDC) to provide employment to highly educated researchers, developers and supporting (ICT) service providers. By combining forces and collaboration with other data-intensive sectors, a public-private, multidisciplinary cluster is created that focuses on data science.
Dr. Michiel van Haarlem, head of the SKA Office Netherlands at ASTRON, adds: "Within this project it has been agreed that the participating countries receive a proportional share in contracts for the construction of the SKA. Dutch companies and institutions are well positioned to win contracts in many areas, for example for the delivery of elements of the telescope and smart software."
The SKA is expected to give an enormous boost to the broad astronomical research portfolio: it will allow astronomers to perform extreme tests of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, research the early phases of the Universe including the formation of the first stars and galaxies, map magnetic fields, unravel the nature of the enigmatic fast radio bursts, study of planets around nearby stars, and seek the answer to one of the greatest mysteries for humankind: are we alone in the Universe?
“The SKA will be a truly transformational instrument, able to directly image pristine hydrogen gas in the infant Universe”, says prof. Leon Koopmans (Groningen University). “This gas shaped nearly everything that we see around us today. Discovering and charting hydrogen will fill a large gap in our knowledge just after Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation was emitted.”
Prof. Ralph Wijers (University of Amsterdam), chair of the Raad voor de Sterrenkunde, adds: “Participation in the SKA was a top priority for the Dutch astronomical community in its strategic plan. I am excited about the scientific opportunities it will offer to our community, and delighted that the long history of Dutch expertise in radio astronomy can now be translated into a founding membership of the first global observatory.”
The SKA project will not only have a major scientific impact, it will also stimulate technological innovation. Developments in the fields of antennas, data transport, software and computing power will be advanced by the demands of the SKA.