Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Update

By Kristine Spekkens (Canadian SKA Science Director) and the AACS
(Cassiopeia – Summer 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.

We are now a year into the construction phase of SKA Phase 1 (= SKA1), and the project continues to evolve rapidly. Major milestones of the staged construction plan include the first correlated SKA1-Low stations and SKA1-Mid dishes in 2024, the first data from scientifically competitive arrays in 2026, and science readiness reviews of completed arrays underway by late 2028. The SKA Construction Proposal and Observatory Delivery Plans detail SKA1 science drivers, technical requirements and anticipated broader impacts, with the latter structured around 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.

There are 16 partner countries of the SKA Observatory (SKAO) that is building and will operate SKA1: 8 are Full Members (Australia; China; Italy; the Netherlands; Portugal; South Africa; Switzerland; the United Kingdom) with voting rights on the SKAO Council which governs the project, and 8 are Observers (Canada; France; Germany; India; Japan; South Korea; Spain; Sweden) that witness SKAO Council meetings where governance decisions are made. In April, France signed an accession agreement to transition from SKAO Observer to Full Member once it ratifies the Observatory Convention, formalizing its long-term commitment to the project. Other Observers are completing their internal processes to become Full Members as well.

A cooperation agreement between NRC and the SKAO allows Canada’s scientific and engineering communities to continue participating in the SKA through March 2023, while longer-term SKAO membership is given full consideration by the federal government. Work under the cooperation agreement is fully funded and proceeding on schedule, with the Canadian correlator team from NRC and industry partner MDA on track to provide the backends to support the initial four-dish Array Assembly (= AA0.5) and the subsequent 16-dish Array Assembly (= AA1) for SKA1-Mid. In addition, the NRC digitizer team has delivered a qualification model system to South Africa for dish testing and is currently working towards the Critical Design Review for the SKA1-Mid Single-Pixel Feed and Receiver in July.

In order to maintain our leading role in SKA1-Mid correlator work, a Canadian commitment to construction and operations beyond the cooperation agreement will soon be required from our government. In this context, bilateral meetings between NRC and SKAO are underway to discuss topics including the accession process, the valuation of Canadian financial contributions in terms of observing time and fair work return, and the funding schedule for a 6% participation in SKA1 recommended by LRP2020. The goal of the meetings is to bring the most up-to-date information to our government as it decides on long-term participation in the SKA.

There has also been significant recent activity to develop the SKA Regional Centres (SRCs), a network of ~five data centres around the world managed through a partnership between SKAO and participating countries that will handle the global science processing (~20 PFlop/s), science archive (~700 PB/yr) and related user support needs. The SRC Steering Committee (SRCSC) is initiating a round of trilateral discussions between the SKAO Council, the SKAO Project Office and the SRCSC national representatives in the different partner countries to develop a common understanding of the SRC Network concept, along with the planning and decisions required to deploy it at scale by the onset of full SKA1 operations at the end of this decade.

Preparatory SRC Network activities are ramping up significantly, with all partner countries contributing personnel to develop an SRC Network Implementation Plan to present to the SKAO Council in mid-2023. The requirements phase is nearly complete, and an architecture phase is now ramping up in parallel with a major prototyping effort. In Canada, the CADC is contributing 1 full-time equivalent (FTE) of effort as well as software to the prototyping activity, with in-kind support from the Digital Research Alliance (the successor organisation to Compute Canada). The costing presented to the federal government for long-term Canadian participation in SKA1 includes a Canadian SRC to leverage our digital research infrastructure expertise and support Canadian science using SKA1.

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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