Green light given for construction of world’s largest radio telescope arrays
The Member States of the recently formed SKA Observatory (SKAO) approved the start of construction of the SKA telescopes in Australia
and South Africa. Portuguese companies will be involved in the assembly, verification, validation and integration of the future antennas.
The Council of the SKA Observatory (SKAO) approved last Friday, June 25, 2021, the start of construction of the SKA telescopes – designated SKA-Low and SKA-Mid in a reference to the radio frequency range that each cover – which will be the largest and most complex radio telescope networks ever built.
This is another historic step, after the creation in early 2021 of the SKAO as an intergovernmental organization, of which Portugal is a founding member, alongside South Africa, Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The construction of the two telescopes, which will be located in South Africa and Australia, is the culmination of more than seven years of work on the conception and engineering project, involving more than 500 specialists from 20 countries, including Portugal, who developed and tested the technology needed to build and operate the state-of-the-art telescopes.
“Portugal has been involved in this project for several years and we now expect to see Portuguese companies engaged in the various work packages in particular in the development of the software, the installation of the network needed to operate the SKA antennas in South Africa and the process of assembly, verification, validation and integration of components,” says Ricardo Conde, president of the Portuguese Space Agency – Portugal Space, the national representative in the SKAO Council.
The Portuguese contribution to the project will be made, according to Ricardo Conde, “directly in cash and in-kind, with the Portuguese institutions that will be part of the project delivering a work package that is already defined and allocated to Portugal”, representing about 1.5% of the total investment planned for the installation of the telescopes. The SKAO estimates the cost of constructing the two telescopes, and the associated operations and business-enabling functions to be €2 billion over the period 2021 – 2030.
“I am ecstatic,” says Philip Diamond, director-general of the SKAO, quoted in a statement from the organization. “This moment has been in the making for 30 years. 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.”
In addition to contributing to the production of science that promises to revolutionize the way we look at the Universe, the construction of the SKA telescopes will bring social and economic benefits to the countries that are involved in the project via a return on investment policy (more information on the benefits to member states can be found in the Construction Proposal). Through this SKA Observatory policy, contributions from member countries are returned in the form of industrial contracts awarded to companies in each member state, with the potential for each country to get a 70% return on their investment.
“Portugal has been involved in this project for several years and now expects to see Portuguese companies involved in the various work packages in particular in the development of the software, the installation of the network required for the operation of the SKA antennas in South Africa and the process of assembly, verification, validation and integration of components,” says Ricardo Conde. In parallel, “Portuguese companies may be positioned to supply subsystems during the construction phase.
According to SKAO procurement of major contracts for the construction of the telescopes “will start immediately, with some market surveys having already been conducted in the past few weeks”. The organization expects that in the coming months, some 70 contracts will be placed by the SKAO within its Member States, with competitive bidding taking place within each country.
The SKAO is essentially a scientific project, with tremendous technological innovation and with the objective of producing knowledge in the area of radio astronomy, the training of astronomers and engineers in problems related to Big Data and high-performance computing, knowledge of the universe through the scientific exploration of data from the SKA, scientific dissemination to young people and the general public. In fact, the involvement of companies and the scientific community, through ENGAGE SKA Portugal, has already guaranteed the development of scientific and technical skills that will now be fundamental for the industrial involvement in the construction and for the scientific involvement in the operation phase of the observatory, when it starts generating data.