Square Kilometre Array Observatory SKAO (astronomy)
The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) became an intergovernmental organisation in February 2021. In June 2021 the SKAO Council approved the construction of the largest radio telescope in the world. The telescope, which is to be located in Australia and South Africa, will have a collecting area of over one square kilometre. This huge scientific project will be directed and overseen from the SKAO’s headquarters in Manchester (UK). The scale of the telescope represents a giant leap forward, both in terms of technology and computing, allowing scientists to observe and measure the universe in unprecedented detail.
After two and a half years of multilateral negotiations led by Italy, the SKAO Convention was signed in Rome in March 2019 by Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Further countries, including India, Sweden and Switzerland, are expected to join in due course. The Convention came into force in December 2020 following its ratification by five signatory states, including the three host countries. This makes the SKAO the second intergovernmental organisation dedicated to astronomical research after the European Southern Observatory (ESO).
A major global astrophysics project
The SKAO will be the most sensitive array of radio astronomy telescopes ever developed and built, with the necessary resolution for detecting signs of planets similar to the Earth several hundred thousands of light years away. It will also allow scientists to gain insights into the formation and development of the first stars and galaxies following the Big Bang, the role of cosmic magnetism, the nature of gravity and possibly even life elsewhere in the universe. In the long term, the SKAO will become a major global astrophysics project, complementing the activities of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the ESO.
Headquarters in Manchester, radio telescopes in Australia and South Africa
Construction of the first configuration of the SKA network in South Africa and Australia will be managed and coordinated from the SKAO headquarters at the Jodrell Bank Institute near Manchester (UK). The desert regions of South Africa provide an ideal, quiet backdrop for the mid-frequency array, which will form a crucial part of the SKA intercontinental telescope. When completed, nearly 200 antennas with a total surface area of 33,000 m2 and a maximum distance of 150km between each one will be in operation. Australia will initially host more than 130,000 dipole antennas receiving low-frequency radio waves, with the ambitious goal of expanding this number to one million.
While the total surface area of all radio telescopes determines the observation sensitivity of the SKAO, the maximum distance between two telescopes in such an array is decisive for the resolution of the observed objects, which is equally important. With the help of this so-called interferometry method, high-performance computers synthesise the signals from the individual telescopes into high-resolution images.
The development of the SKA is being closely followed by many Swiss research institutions. In March 2020, SERI mandated the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) to coordinate Switzerland’s participation in the SKA. The following month, on 6 April, the EPFL became a special member of SKAO Ltd, the UK-based company in charge of coordinating the preparatory design phase of the telescope. The EPFL and the SKAO concluded a scientific and technical cooperation agreement on 8 June 2021. The agreement will run from 2021 to 2023.
SERI took part in the meetings of the SKA Observatory Council Preparatory Task Force, which finalised the setting up of the intergovernmental organisation. Since the commencement of the SKAO agreement it has also enjoyed observer status at the meetings of the SKAO Council and Finance Committee.
On 16 September 2020 the Federal Assembly approved a budget of CHF 8.9 million for Switzerland to join the SKAO as proposed in the 2021–2024 ERI dispatch. During the course of 2020, SERI worked with players from industry and institutions in Switzerland with an interest in the SKAO to assess the current situation. Their analysis showed that only by becoming a full member can Switzerland get a satisfactory return on its investment. As the existing budget does not allow Switzerland to contribute to the construction and operation of the SKAO beyond 2024, the Federal Council asked Parliament to approve a further CHF 24.7 million to fund Switzerland’s participation up to 2030. A dispatch to this effect was presented to Parliament on 4 June 2021. If Parliament approves this additional funding, the Federal Council can confirm Switzerland’s participation in the SKAO up to 2030. This will boost Swiss research in the field of radio astronomy at international level.