SKA bosses agree on Phase 1 design

11 March 2015

The board of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) has agreed to move the radio telescope project to its final pre-construction phase, the SKA Organisation announced on Tuesday.

The design of the first phase of the SKA, known as SKA1, is budgeted to cost €650- million. It comprises two complementary world-class instruments – one in Australia and one in South Africa.

The SKA is an international project between 11 nations – Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom – to build the world’s most powerful radio telescope. Teams around the world have been working for the past 20 months in a “rigorous and extremely challenging science-driven, engineering process” with teams to refine the design of SKA1.

“I was impressed by the strong support from the Board and the momentum to take the project forward”, said Professor Philip Diamond, director general of the SKA Organisation. “The SKA will fundamentally change our understanding of the Universe. We are talking about a facility that will be many times better than anything else out there.”

‘Gravitational waves’

The SKA Organisation is responsible for leading the project and is based at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester in the UK.

The SKA instruments will be located in South Africa and Australia. In the first phase of the project, South Africa will host about 200 parabolic antennas or dishes, which are like very large domestic satellite dishes. Australia will host more than 100 000 “dipole” antennas, which resemble domestic TV aerials.

Phase 1 of the project is due to be completed in 2022 and phase 2 in 2030. Phase 2 (called SKA2) will expand into other African countries, with the Australian component also being expanded.

“Thanks to these two complementary instruments, we will address a broad range of exciting science, such as observing pulsars and black holes to detect the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein, testing gravity, and looking for signatures of life in the galaxy,” said Professor Robert Braun, the science director of the SKA Organisation.

“We will also observe one of the last unexplored periods in the history of our Universe – the epoch of re-ionisation – looking back to the first billion years of the Universe at a time when the first stars and galaxies are forming.”

MeerKAT under construction

The Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope, a precursor telescope already operating as a first-class instrument in its own right in Western Australia, will continue to provide world-leading survey capability which will complement the overall SKA programme.

The SKA will incorporate a programme for the development of next-generation Phased Array Feeds (PAFs), a technology that greatly enhances the field of view of radio telescopes, allowing for observations of a larger portion of the sky in any given time.

In South Africa, the MeerKAT telescope, another precursor to the SKA, will be integrated into the dish array. The MeerKAT is currently under construction in the Karoo.

‘We can be proud’

“This will build on South Africa’s considerable investment in science and in particular radio astronomy, it’s something we can rightly be very proud of,” said Dr Phil Mjwara, Director General of the South African Department of Science and Technology.

“Being involved in this exciting global science project spanning two continents alongside our Australian colleagues and colleagues from around the world is great for the country and for the African continent.”

The next step for the SKA partner countries is to develop an international organisation before the start of the construction in 2018.

Professor John Womersley, chair of the SKA Board of Directors, said: “This incredible telescope has a design, it is within budget, construction is around the corner, it will drive technology development in the era of Big Data, and it is going to deliver Nobel prize- winning science. In short, it will have an invaluable impact on society like very few enterprises before it.”

SAinfo reporter and SKA Africa