Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Update

By / par Kristine Spekkens (Canadian SKA Science Director) and the AACS
(Cassiopeia – Winter / hiver 2021)

Artist’s impression of the SKA, combining elements from South Africa and Australia from left to right in the image. Photos of real hardware have been blended with realizations of the future SKA antennas. Image credit: SKA Observatory.

The SKA project continues to develop rapidly. The construction phase for SKA Phase 1 (= SKA1) has begun, with recent activities focussing on tender and procurement.

The SKA Observatory (SKAO) is building and will operate SKA1, with current Member States Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, and the United Kingdom responsible for project governance. Potential future SKAO partners are designated as SKAO Council Observers, which currently include Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden. Many Observers are completing their internal processes to become Member States and gain governance rights in the project.

SKA1 construction is proceeding according to the construction and observatory delivery plans previously published by the SKAO, which also detail the science drivers, technical requirements, and anticipated societal benefits of the project. Telescope construction is staged into “Array Assemblies” (AA’s). The first 6-station array for SKA1-Low in Australia and 4-dish array for SKA1-Mid in South Africa (= AA0.5) are planned for 2024, science verification observations (with AA2) should begin in 2026, operations readiness reviews for the telescope design baselines (= AA4) are expected by 2028.

The SKAO is committed to the sustainable development of the project across the globe, with a particular focus on building partnerships with Indigenous and local communities at the remote sites where the dishes and antennas will be located. In Australia, an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with the Wajarri Yamaji on whose traditional lands SKA1-Low will be located provides ongoing consent for the Murchison Radio Observatory (MRO) where ASKAP and the MWA currently operate, and SKA1-Low has received in-principle support while a new ILUA is being finalized. In South Africa, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with representatives of the San people whose early ancestors walked the land on which SKA1-Mid will be located was signed to protect and promote San culture and heritage. An MOU is also in place with Agri-SA, many of whose members own farms which border or will host SKA1-Mid antennas. These steps are part of an ongoing process of respectful engagement on which the SKAO will continue to build to deliver tangible societal benefits across the lifetime of the project.

In late November, NRC signed a two-year cooperation agreement with the SKAO to allow Canada’s scientific and engineering communities to continue participation in the project, while membership in the SKAO is given full consideration by the federal government. Key elements of the cooperation agreement include the delivery of the AA0.5 SKA1-Mid correlator using Canadian data processing technology developed by NRC-HAA and industry partner MDA during the design phase, and the opportunity for Canadian industry to participate in construction tender and procurement across the project through March 2023.

Canada’s long-term participation in the SKA would require a commitment to construction and operations beyond the cooperation agreement, and this commitment would be needed well before the agreement expires in 2023 in order to maintain our leading role in the SKA1-Mid correlator work. Raising awareness about the SKA within government and universities continues to be an integral part of the process toward securing Canada’s future participation, and work by the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy in this regard has begun.

There are a number of ways in which astronomers can get involved in the SKA: for example, SKA Science Working Groups are accepting new members, and there are regular calls for participation in SKA Science Data Challenges. Now that construction has begun, a significant ramp-up in staffing across the project also is underway, and many scientists, engineers, software designers, and support and administrative personnel will be hired. Individuals from all nationalities are welcome to apply. Those interested should keep an eye on the SKAO Recruitment Portal, which includes a “job alert” tool to set up personalized emails filtered by field of expertise, location, duration and employment type.

For more information and updates on Canada and the SKA:

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