Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Update

By Kristine Spekkens (Canadian SKA Science Director) and the AACS
(Cassiopeia – Autumn 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 Observatory (SKAO) is now 15 months into the construction phase of SKA Phase 1 (=SKA1), with the staged construction plan anticipating 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 2028.  Forty-one contracts for a total commitment of over 150 million euros have now been awarded, with a focus on the components and subsystems needed for the initial integration phases for SKA1-Mid and SKA1-Low as well as on the development of software infrastructure for telescope management and delivery. Full production contracts for the major infrastructure components are expected to be secured by the end of 2022, with mitigation plans being implemented to navigate exceptional global challenges including inflation, shipping costs/times, labour shortages and component availability.

The SKAO’s mission is “to build and operate cutting-edge radio telescopes to transform our understanding of the Universe, and deliver benefits to society through global collaboration and innovation”. The broader impacts of the SKA are structured around the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and include 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. The completion of a new SKA1-Low-specific ILUA – the outcome of years of negotiations – is expected by the end of this year. 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. NRC, SKAO, and LCRIC are organising a webinar this fall to provide CASCA members with additional information regarding the ongoing process of respectful engagement with Indigenous peoples and local communities on which the SKAO will continue to build across the lifetime of the project.

Canada is currently an Observer of the SKAO Council that governs the project. 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 8-dish Array Assembly (= AA1) for SKA1-Mid. A prototype system integration facility has been set up at MDA, with a compute cluster installed and digitizer and correlator hardware to be delivered in mid-September.  A Critical Design Review for the SKA1-Mid Single Pixel Feed and Receiver was held July 5-7, resulting in a conditional pass to proceed with construction of the Band 1 & 2 design pending the implementation of the recommendations generated by the review panel.

In order to maintain our leading role in SKA1-Mid correlator work, a commitment to construction and operations beyond the cooperation agreement will soon be required from our government. Bilateral meetings between NRC and SKAO held over the summer discussed a broad range of topics related to fulfilling the LPR2020 recommendation regarding Canadian participation in SKA1. These meetings have provided the ministries and agencies involved in the file with the most detailed, up-to-date information available to aid our government in its decision on long-term participation in the SKA.

New Eyes on the Universe, an international conference that will highlight the complementarity and synergies between the SKA and the ngVLA, will be held in Vancouver the week of April 30, 2023. The meeting will explore the science opportunities enabled by the unprecedented combined frequency coverage, sensitivity and resolution of the ngVLA and the SKA.  Plenary talks will feature the areas of greatest synergy between the two observatories, while contributed talks will focus on topics that highlight each facility’s strengths. Additional details regarding the conference as well as opportunities to participate will be circulated to CASCA members as they become available.

For more information and updates on Canada and the SKA:

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