Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Update

By Kristine Spekkens (Canadian SKA Science Director) and the AACS
(Cassiopeia – Winter 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 18 months into the construction phase of SKA Phase 1 (=SKA1). On 5 December 2022, construction commencement ceremonies were held at the SKA1-Low telescope site in Australia and the SKA1-Mid site in South Africa to mark the formal start of construction. In combination with previous construction phase commitments, major new contracts announced during the ceremonies bring the total amount of construction funds allocated so far by the Observatory to close to €500 million, including the major infrastructure and antennas for both telescopes.  Key project milestones in the staged construction plan are 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.

Delivering benefits to society while building and operating cutting-edge radio telescopes is key to the mission of the SKAO, and includes building partnerships with Indigenous and local communities at the remote telescope sites. In Australia, SKA1-Low will be located on the traditional lands of the Wajarri Yamaji, who have lived there for tens of thousands of years. On 5 November 2022, the Wajarri celebrated the registration of an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) for the SKA1-Low site, which ensures that their cultural heritage will be protected and that they will receive sustainable and intergenerational benefits in areas such as enterprise and training and education. In recognition of the agreement, the Wajarri gifted the site the traditional name Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, meaning “sharing the sky and stars”. In South Africa, the Karoo region in which the SKA1-Mid site is located was walked by the early ancestors of the San, who are considered to be some of the most ancient people on Earth. The San were involved in ecology and heritage studies conducted as part of the strategic environmental assessment required to construct the SKA, with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed to protect and promote San culture and heritage. More broadly, SKA1-Mid will be an important vehicle for human capital development across a variety of demographics on the African continent. For example, 90% of the Karoo-based staff of MeerKAT – the precursor telescope that will be integrated into SKA1-Mid – originate from local communities, while a variety of education, financial assistance and mentorship programs are in place to support local artisans and businesses.

Webinars will take place in early 2023 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. They will consist of short presentations from individuals in Australia and South Africa who are directly involved in these efforts, followed by ample time for questions and discussion moderated by LCRIC. Considering differences in time zones as well as in local contexts, two separate webinars will be held to focus on the SKA sites in Australia and in South Africa, respectively. The Australia-focussed webinar is scheduled for Monday, 13 Feb 2023 at 4pm Eastern. The timing of the South Africa-focussed webinar is still being finalized, and will likely take place in March 2023. Details regarding webinar content, timing and how to participate will be circulated to the CASCA membership early next year.

Canada is currently an Observer of the SKAO Council, composed of representatives from the eight current Member States, which 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. The prototype system integration facility at MDA is nearing completion, and integration of the digitizer and correlator hardware there is making good progress.

In order to maintain our leading role in SKA1-Mid correlator work, a commitment to construction and operations beyond the March 2023 end date of the cooperation agreement is imminently required by the federal government. If Canada were a Full Member of the SKAO, we could participate in key upcoming governance decisions by the SKAO Council in addition to having guaranteed scientific and technological participation rights in the project.

Canada is also a member of the SKA Regional Centre Steering Committee (SRCSC), composed of representatives of the 16 countries (Member States and prospective members such as Canada) and SKAO. The SRCSC collaboration is tasked with developing a governance model, operational policies, an architecture and an implementation plan for the international network of interoperating data centres currently called the “SRC Network”. With in-kind effort of 1 FTE from several NRC (CADC) and the former Compute Canada Federation staff, Canada is contributing at all levels, providing expertise, operational experience and software. Activity will be ramping up in 2023 as the SRC Network has to be minimally functional to support Science Verification in 2026.

The New Eyes on the Universe conference in Vancouver from 1-5 May 2023 will highlight synergies between the SKA and the ngVLA. Invited talks will feature areas in which scientific breakthroughs will most likely result from access to both observatories, and abstract submission for oral and poster contributions is now open. Scientific contributions are being sought within the broad themes of the Habitable Universe, the Nearby Universe, the Distant Universe, and the Energetic Universe. Contributions that discuss different aspects of operations, such as interoperability, data management or analysis tools, are also welcome. The oral abstract submission deadline is February 10 2023, while that for poster submissions is April 7 2023.  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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