New SKA Observatory launches in ‘historic moment for radio astronomy’

8 Feb 2021

The SKAO telescope planned for the Karoo region, South Africa. Image: SKAO

A new intergovernmental observatory, SKAO, plans to build telescopes in Australia and South Africa to further our understanding of the universe.

A new intergovernmental organisation for radio astronomy, the SKA Observatory (SKAO), has launched. It brings together representatives from Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the UK to build and operate cutting-edge radio telescopes. The goal is to further the understanding of the universe, including the formation and evolution of galaxies, the physics of extreme environments and the origins of life.

SKAO headquarters is located on the grounds of Jodrell Bank in the UK but its first two telescopes will be constructed in Australia and South Africa. According to its members, these will be the “two largest and most complex radio telescope networks ever built”.

The South African telescope will be based in the Karoo region’s South African Radio Astronomy Observatory and will be made up of 197 dishes that are 15 metres in diameter.

In Australia, the telescope will have more than 130,000 antennas, each two metres tall, and will be located on the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.

Dr Catherine Cesarsky, chair of the SKAO Council, called the organisation’s launch a “historic moment for radio astronomy”.

“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,” she said.

Pending council approval, construction of the telescopes is expected to begin in the next few months and to last a total of eight years. SKAO will be hiring in South Africa and Australia this year.

SKAO director general Prof Philip Diamond added that the organisation is “not just any observatory”, but one of the “mega-science facilities of the 21st century”.

“For our community, this is about participating in one of the great scientific adventures of the coming decades,” Diamond said. “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.”

As well as SKAO’s member countries, there are a number of observer nations that are expected to join in the coming weeks and months. These include Canada, China, France, India, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Lisa Ardill was careers editor at Silicon Republic until June 2021