Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Update

By/par Bryan Gaensler, Canadian SKA Science Director
(Cassiopeia – Spring/printemps 2018)

For more information on the SKA, subscribe to the Canadian SKA email list by sending a blank email to all+subscribe@skacanada.groups.io, and visit the Canadian SKA WWW site.

International SKA Update

Canada is one of 10 member countries of the SKA Organisation, and is represented on the SKA Board of Directors by Greg Fahlman (NRC) and Bryan Gaensler (University of Toronto). The SKA Board met most recently in October 2017 via videoconference, and in November 2017 in Bologna. The SKA Board’s Executive Committee (of which Bryan Gaensler is a member) meets monthly.

Notable outcomes from these meetings have included:

  • Appointment of Dr Catherine Cesarky (former Director General of ESO) as the new chair of the SKA Board.
  • Assessment of the “Deployment Baseline” for SKA1, which corresponds to the telescopes currently deliverable at a funding level of €674M (2016 euros). The SKA Board has expressed confidence that the current Deployment Baseline will provide transformational science capabilities. Furthermore, re-instatement of the omitted capabilities, up to the full restoration of the Design Baseline, is planned, either during or after the construction phase, should additional funding become available. Ongoing cost oversight will take place within the SKA Office’s regular activities. The Board now looks to the science community, and particularly to the SKA Science and Engineering Advisory Committee (SEAC) to regularly review the Deployment Baseline and to confirm its ability to deliver transformational science. Prof Kristine Spekkens from the Royal Military College of Canada is a member of the SEAC.
  • Review of the upcoming suite of critical design reviews (CDRs) and subsequent CDR closures, which will take place from April 2018 to March 2019.
  • Reports on site activity in South Africa and Australia. In South Africa, a major milestone has been reached with the completion of land acquisition in the SKA core in the Karoo. The MeerKAT project remains on track to have a 64-antenna array ready to commence large survey project science at the beginning of April 2018. In Australia, the Heritage Agreement with the Wajarri Yamatji traditional owners, which will allow land surveys and low impact activities to proceed, is expected to be signed soon. The Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory’s solar/battery power station is now operational.
  • Discussion of planning for SKA Science Processing Centres and science archives.
  • The issuance of a non-binding “request for information” (RfI), distributed to parties interested in participating in SKA procurement.
  • Planning for transition of the SKA Organisation into an Intergovernmental Organisation (IGO), including plans to establish a Transition Oversight Committee, to co-ordinate transition activities between the Board and the Convention Preparatory Task Force (CPTF). The CPTF will be formally established after the signing of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory Convention and will represent the interests of the IGO until the SKA Observatory Council is formed. Currently, the Convention is expected to be signed in September 2018.
  • Discussion on plans for SKA1 construction.
  • Ongoing updates from France, Germany, Portugal, Japan, Korea, Spain and Switzerland on their SKA-related activities and on their potential interest in participating in the SKA project.
  • Discussion with NRAO on the relationship between the SKA and planning for future US Radio Astronomy facilities.
  • Approval of an SKA Code of Ethics and Whistleblowing Policy.
  • Ongoing discussion of finances, engineering reports, business development, communications, governance, operations, and construction of the new SKA Headquarters at Jodrell Bank.

Upcoming SKA Board meetings will be in April 2018 (Sweden), July 2018 (South Africa) and November 2018 (United Kingdom). Meetings of the SKA Members (i.e., the funding agencies; currently Greg Fahlman represents NRC) will take place immediately preceding each of these Board meetings.

For further information on international SKA activities, see the latest SKA Newsletter and the bi-monthly SKA Organisation Bulletin.

Canadian Initiative for Radio Astronomy

The Canada Foundation for Innovation has awarded $9.4M (including provincial and other matches) to the project “Unlocking the Radio Sky with Next-Generation Survey Astronomy”, led by Bryan Gaensler. This has led to the creation of the Canadian Initiative for Radio Astronomy Data Analysis (CIRADA), a program to develop the tools and infrastructure needed to support a Canadian SKA Data Centre, with direct application to the VLA, CHIME and ASKAP. Technical staff are already being appointed to CIRADA, and the project will formally commence in April 2018.

SKA Science and Science Engagement

The meeting “Canadian Radio Astronomy: Surveying the Present and Shaping the Future” was held in Montreal in September 2017. See here for copies of presentations from the meeting, and here for a summary of the meeting published in Nature Astronomy.

Canadian astronomers continue to participate in almost all SKA science working groups. The working groups on transients, pulsars, the Milky Way and the cradle of life are all currently chaired by Canadians (Michael Rupen, Ingrid Stairs, Erik Rosolowsky and Doug Johnstone, respectively). An SKA lunch event will be held on May 24, 2018 at the CASCA annual meeting in Victoria. The next SKA General Science Meeting and Key Science Project Workshop will take place at the new SKA Headquarters at Jodrell Bank over September 3–7, 2018.

The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) is the precursor of SKA-Low and is a powerful science facility in its own right (see MWA for details). MWA phase 2, which improves the sensitivity of the array by an order of magnitude, is now operating. Canada, through the University of Toronto, is a full member of the MWA project, with representation on the MWA Board. Any Canadian astronomers wishing to join the MWA Consortium and to consequently gain access to MWA data, software tools and science collaborations should contact Bryan Gaensler.

The SKA project maintains 11 international science working groups and another 2 focus groups. Membership of science working groups and focus groups is open to all qualified astronomers. If you are interested in joining one of these groups, please contact Bryan Gaensler.

ACURA Advisory Council on the SKA

The Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA) coordinates activities and discussion on the SKA through the ACURA Advisory Council on the SKA (AACS); see here for a listing of AACS membership. AACS meets several times per year, with its next meeting on April 26, 2018. For further information or to propose AACS agenda items, please contact the AACS Chair, Bryan Gaensler.

SKA Technology Development

NRC Herzberg continues to be a major participant in pre-construction efforts for the SKA, principally through NRC leadership of the Central Signal Processing consortium and their contractor MDA, and also through NRC participation in the DISH and Telescope Manager design work.

A new frequency slice architecture has also been developed for the Mid-Frequency Correlator/Beamformer (MID.CBF). This has now been formally accepted as the MID.CBF reference design, and has resulted in €20M in cost reductions. The overall CSP design is highly scalable, with a plan for a technology refresh and addition of enhanced capabilities within the first 5-10 years of operations. Detailed design documents have now been submitted for review, and preparations are now taking place for the CSP critical design review. The five sub-elements of the CSP program are now undergoing critical design reviews, and the element review for the overall CSP program will occur in June 2018. Discussion has commended on plans for beyond CDR, including a bridging plan and then construction.

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