The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Observatory, the intergovernmental organisation that will build and operate the world's largest radio telescope, has taken an important step forward thanks to the ratification of the SKA Observatory Convention by the parliament of the Netherlands. Ratification has now been confirmed.
Published by the editorial team, 19 August 2019
Before the summer, the Dutch parliament ratified the Convention establishing the Square Kilometre Array Observatory and confirmation has now been received that the acts of ratification have been accepted by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the depository of the Convention. The Netherlands is the first country to officially complete its ratification process and submit its ratification instruments to the depository. This is an important step in the establishment of the new intergovernmental organisation, with headquarters near Manchester in the United Kingdom.
The other countries that have signed the Convention, namely Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, China, Italy and Portugal, are also currently undergoing similar ratification processes. The Convention, signed in Rome on 12 March this year, establishing the intergovernmental organization enters into force once at least five countries, including the three host countries (Australia, South Africa and United Kingdom), have completed ratification and submitted their instruments of ratification with the depository.
Minister Van Engelshoven (Ministry of Education, Culture and Science of the Netherlands): “As part of the Square Kilometre Array project, the Netherlands is contributing to the development of the world's largest radio telescope. With this large number of antennas, the SKA will generate huge amounts of data; one petabit per second, that is more than three times the worldwide internet traffic in 2018. This is groundbreaking! We are investing 30 million Euros in the project, and that investment will generate employment, activity for industry and knowledge for our society. For example in the fields of IT and sustainable energy. The Netherlands will also strengthen its leading position in science worldwide."
Prof. Carole Jackson, director-general of ASTRON (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy): "I am very proud that the Netherlands is one of the founders of the new SKA Observatory. ASTRON is hosting the SKA Office for the Netherlands, with which we coordinate scientific and technical efforts of this mega project with Dutch universities and industry. We look forward to continuing this work with our national and international partners to make the SKA a success."
Prof. Philip Diamond, director-general of the SKA adds: “I am very pleased that the Netherlands is the first of our partner countries to have ratified the SKA Observatory Convention. This reinforces the momentum that now exists within the SKA. We expect full ratification of the Convention next year and the start of construction in approximately 18 months."
SKA: 200 dishes and 130,000 antennas
The SKA will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world. It will be built in South Africa and Australia. In South Africa, a first set of around 200 large dishes will be deployed in the Karoo region, while in Western Australia the telescope will initially consist of more than 130,000 antennas spread over 512 antenna fields. The design of these antennas is based on the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) telescope from ASTRON. With this large number of antennas, the SKA generates huge amounts of data.
Are we alone in the universe?
The SKA is designed to examine important questions about our universe: this allows astronomers to test Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity in extreme circumstances, to investigate the early phases of the universe, including the formation of the first stars and galaxies, to map magnetic fields, unravel the nature of the enigmatic Fast Radio Bursts, study planets around nearby stars, and find the answer to one of humanity's greatest mysteries: are we alone in the universe?
The SKA project will not only have a major scientific impact, it is already stimulating technological innovation. Developments in antenna structures, data transport, software and computer architectures will be improved by the requirements of the SKA. Dr. Michiel van Haarlem, head of the SKA Office for the Netherlands at ASTRON: "Within the project it has been agreed that participating countries will receive a proportionate share in contracts for the construction of the SKA. Dutch companies and institutions are well positioned to receive contracts in many areas. For example for the delivery of elements of the telescope and smart software."
Collaboration in Data science
A network of regional SKA centres will process and archive the SKA data, enabling astronomers to access it in order to make scientific discoveries. The Netherlands will set up a Science Data Centre (SDC) to offer employment to highly educated researchers, developers and supporting (IT) service providers. By joining forces and collaborating with other data-intensive sectors, a public-private, multidisciplinary cluster is created that focuses on data science.