The new observatory, SKAO, was launched on 4 February 2021 when the first meeting of its governing Council was held. The observatory is the world’s second intergovernmental organisation dedicated to astronomy.
Catherine Cesarsky has been appointed as the first Chair of the SKAO Council.
“This is a historic moment for radio astronomy”, she said. “Behind today’s milestone, there are countries that had the vision to get deeply involved because they saw the wider benefits their participation in SKAO could bring to build an ecosystem of science and technology involving fundamental research, computing, engineering, and skills for the next generation, which are essential in a 21st century digital economy.”
The new observatory has its headquarters at on the grounds of the Jodrell Bank UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United Kingdom, with telescopes located at sites in Australia and South Africa.
SKAO’s telescope in South Africa will be composed of 197 dish antennas, each 15 m in diameter, located in the Karoo region. Of these, 64 already exist and are operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO). The telescope in Australia will be composed of 131 072 two-metre-tall antennas located on the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.
The creation of SKAO follows a decade of detailed engineering design work, scientific prioritisation, and policy development under the supervision of its predecessor the SKA Organisation, supported by more than 500 engineers, over 1,000 scientists and dozens of policy-makers in more than 20 countries; and is the result of 30 years of thinking and research and development since discussions first took place about developing a next-generation radio telescope.
Philip Diamond, professor at the University of Manchester, has been appointed as the first Director-General of SKAO.
“Today marks the birth of a new observatory,” he said. “And not just any observatory – this is one of the mega-science facilities of the 21st century. It is the culmination of many years of work and I wish to congratulate everyone in the SKA community and in our partner governments and institutions who have worked so hard to make this happen. For our community, this is about participating in one of the great scientific adventures of the coming decades. It is about skills, technology, innovation, industrial return, and spin offs but fundamentally it is about a wonderful scientific journey that we are now embarking on.”
Lars Börjesson, professor of physics at Chalmers, is Sweden’s representative as an observer to the SKAO Council.
“The establishment of the SKA Observatory is a major event for the field of radio astronomy, and a decisive organisational step towards the construction of the SKA telescope”, he said. “We’ve reached this milestone thanks to a huge amount of work in a truly global network, involving the world’s leading radio astronomy institutes and observatories. Together, across international borders, we have combined expertise and enthusiasm to develop the SKA’s science goals, its technical design and organisational structure, and this is something we can be really proud of. For Sweden, funding has now been secured for participation in the construction phase, and the formal process for membership in the SKA Observatory has been initiated.”
The first SKAO Council meeting follows the signature of the SKA treaty, formally known as the convention establishing the SKA Observatory, on 12 March 2019 in Rome, and its subsequent ratification by Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom and entry into force on 15 January 2021, marking the official birth date of the observatory.
The council is composed of representatives from the Observatory’s Member States, as well as observer countries aspiring to join SKAO. Sweden is one of several observer countries that took part in the design phase of the SKA, along with Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Spain and Switzerland. These countries’ future accession to SKAO is expected in the coming weeks and months, once their national processes have been completed. Representatives of national bodies in Japan and South Korea complement the select list of observers in the SKAO Council.
At its first meeting, the SKAO Council approved policies and procedures that have been prepared in recent months – covering governance, funding, programmatic and HR matters, among others. These approvals are required to transfer staff and assets from the SKA Organisation to the observatory.
“The coming months will keep us very busy, with hopefully new countries formalising their accession to SKAO and the expected key decision of the SKAO Council giving us green light to start the construction of the telescopes,” added Prof. Diamond.
SKAO will begin recruitment in Australia and South Africa in the next few months, working alongside local partners CSIRO and SARAO to supervise construction, which is expected to last eight years, with early science opportunities starting in the mid 2020s.
About the SKA Observatory
SKAO, formally known as the SKA Observatory, is a global collaboration of member states to build and operate cutting-edge radio telescopes to answer fundamental questions about our universe. Headquartered in the UK, its first two telescopes, the two largest and most complex radio telescope networks ever built, will be constructed in Australia and South Africa. A later expansion is envisioned in both countries and other African partner countries. SKAO’s telescopes will conduct transformational science and, together with other state-of-the-art research facilities, address gaps in our understanding of the universe including the formation and evolution of galaxies, fundamental physics in extreme environments and the origins of life. Through the development of innovative technologies and its contribution to addressing global societal challenges, SKAO will play its part to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and deliver significant non-science impact across its membership and beyond.
Current SKAO Members are Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom with several other countries, among them Sweden, aspiring to membership or engagement with SKAO in the future.
About Onsala Space Observatory and Sweden’s role in the SKA project
Onsala Space Observatory is Sweden's national facility for radio astronomy. The observatory provides researchers with equipment for the study of the earth and the rest of the universe. In Onsala, 45 km south of Gothenburg, it operates four radio telescopes and a station in the international telescope Lofar. The SKA is one of several international projects that the observatory participates in. The observatory is hosted by the Department of Space, Earth and Environment at Chalmers University of Technology, and is operated on behalf of the Swedish Research Council.
Between 2012 and 2021, Onsala Space Observatory represented Sweden as a member country of the SKA Organization. Chalmers and Onsala Space Observatory have been working on the development of the SKA since its inception. Scientists in Sweden have worked both in preparing the SKA's scientific programme, and developing the technical components and systems that the telescopes need to be able to make new discoveries. Sweden has contributed with the development and prototypes of receivers for SKA's dish antennas, for example unique low-noise amplifiers.
With the support of Big Science Sweden, Chalmers and Onsala Space Observatory engaged companies in the SKA at an early stage, particularly in areas where Sweden is strong (e.g. radio and microwave engineering, ICT and signal processing), developing close collaborations with several universities and institutes. Thanks to both technical development work and cooperation with other research organizations involved in SKA's development, Sweden has been able to lead the completion and delivery of two important systems for SKA’s telescope in South Africa (about 200 receivers for the frequency band 350 - 1050 MHz, low noise amplifiers for several frequency bands and digitising systems for faint signals). In this work, Sweden works together with colleagues in Canada, France, India, Spain and South Africa.
Robert Cumming, communicator, Onsala Space Observatory, Chalmers, tel: +46 31-772 5500 or +46 70 493 3114, firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Conway, professor and director, Onsala Space Observatory, Chalmers, +46 31-772 5500, email@example.com
A (top) - Composite image of the SKA combining all elements in South Africa and Australia. This image blends photos of real hardware already on the ground on both sites with artist's impressions of the future SKA antennas. From left: artist's impression of the future SKA dishes blend into the existing precursor MeerKAT telescope dishes in South Africa. From right: artist's impression of the future SKA-Low stations blends into the existing AAVS2.0 prototype station in Western Australia.
Credit: SKA Organisation