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Sat July 31 2021

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Go-ahead for construction of record telescopes

30 Jun Construction is set to start on the largest and most complex networks of radio telescopes ever built.

Composite image of the SKA combining existing and future elements of the arrays in South Africa (left) and Australia (right)
Composite image of the SKA combining existing and future elements of the arrays in South Africa (left) and Australia (right)

Member states of the SKA Observatory (SKAO) – headquartered in the UK –  have approved the start of construction of the SKA telescopes in Australia and South Africa. The two telescopes, currently designated SKA-Low and SKA-Mid, names which describe the radio frequency range they each cover.

The decision to approve construction follows the creation of the SKAO as an intergovernmental organisation earlier this year, and the publication of two key documents, the Observatory’s Construction Proposal and Observatory Establishment & Delivery Plan, last year. The documents are the culmination of over seven years of design and engineering work by more than 500 experts from 20 countries to develop and test the technologies needed to build and operate the telescopes. Eleven international consortia representing more than 100 institutions including research labs, universities and companies from around the world, designed the antennas, networks, computing, software and infrastructure needed for the telescopes to function.

“I am ecstatic. This moment has been 30 years in the making,” said SKAO director-general Professor Philip Diamond. “Today, humankind is taking another giant leap by committing to build what will be the largest science facility of its kind on the planet; not just one but the two largest and most complex radio telescope networks, designed to unlock some of the most fascinating secrets of our universe.”

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Dr Catherine Cesarsky, chairperson of the SKAO Council, added: “I would like to add my thanks to the members of the SKAO Council and the governments they represent. Giving the green light to start the construction of the SKA telescopes shows their confidence in the professional work that’s been done by the SKAO to get here, with a sound plan that is ready for implementation, and in the bright future of this ground-breaking research facility.”

In addition to delivering the science, the construction of the SKA telescopes is expected to produce societal and economic benefits for the countries involved through direct and indirect economic returns from innovation and technological spin-offs, new high-tech jobs and boosted industrial capacity.

In recent months, the SKAO treaty has been ratified by all seven initial signatories: Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom. There has also been progress from France and Spain towards membership of the Observatory; and the signature of a cooperation agreement with Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne on behalf of Switzerland. The Swiss government has announced its intention to join the SKAO, pending approval from its parliament on the funding. Other countries, including those that also took part in the design phase of the SKA telescopes (Canada, Germany, India, and Sweden), and other more recent joiners such as Japan and South Korea, complete the list of observers in the council.

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