Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Update

By / par Kristine Spekkens (Canadian SKA Science Director) and the AACS
(Cassiopeia – Spring / printemps 2022)

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, with the construction phase for SKA Phase 1 (= SKA1) now well underway. The SKA will deliver a range of scientific, technical, and societal benefits, with the latter framed through the lens of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In particular, the project is committed to building partnerships with Indigenous and local communities at the remote sites where the dishes and antennas will be located. The SKA Construction Proposal and Observatory Delivery Plans detail the project science drivers, technical requirements and anticipated broader impacts, SKA Prospectus summarizes these aspects, and the SKA Canada website gives up-to-date Canada-specific information.

SKA1 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 the first scientifically competitive arrays of 64 SKA1-Low stations and 64 SKA1-Mid dishes (= AA2) are set to begin in 2026, and operations readiness reviews for the telescope design baselines (= AA4) are expected by 2028. Nine months into the construction phase, construction tender and procurement is a project office focus, with over two dozen contracts now awarded to SKA Member States.

Significant progress towards securing long-term commitments to the SKA Observatory (SKAO) by partner countries have also been made in recent months. In January, Switzerland became the first country to accede to the SKAO Convention as a Member State, joining the seven founding Member States Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. The eight current Member States are responsible for project governance, with voting rights on the SKAO Council.

Project partners that are not SKAO Members are designated as SKAO Council Observers, and are witness to SKAO Council meetings. Given Switzerland’s recent accession to the SKAO Convention, eight Observer countries remain: Canada; France; Germany; India; Japan; South Korea; Spain; and Sweden. Many Observers are completing their internal processes to become Member States and gain governance rights. Since October 2021, the SKAO has signed short-term cooperation agreements with research institutions in Canada, France, India, and Sweden to allow for the continued technological and scientific participation of these partner countries until they make long-term participation decisions and complete related processes.

The cooperation agreement between NRC and the SKAO allows Canada’s scientific and engineering communities to continue participating in the project — most notably in the delivery of the AA0.5 SKA1-Mid correlator developed by NRC-HAA and industry partner MDA — while membership in the SKAO is given full consideration by the federal government. Canada’s long-term participation in the SKA requires a commitment to construction and operations beyond the cooperation agreement, and this commitment is needed well before the agreement expires in early 2023 to maintain our leading role in SKA1-Mid correlator work. The Coalition for Canadian Astronomy is hard at work to raise awareness of the requisite governmental decisions and timelines.

There are a number of ways in which Canadian 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. Material from the recently completed SKA Regional Centre Training Events and an upcoming special session on artificial intelligence in radio astronomy at the European Astronomical Society Annual Meeting also provide opportunities to prepare for the massive data streams that the SKA will generate.

Now that the construction phase has begun a significant ramp-up in staffing across the project is also underway, and many scientists, engineers, software designers, and support and administrative personnel are being 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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