Crucial agreements pave way for Square Kilometre Array

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The SKA Observatory (SKAO) has signed agreements with Australia and South Africa, paving the way for the countries to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescopes and associated infrastructure.

Known as host country agreements (HCAs), these were signed by SKAO director-general professor Philip Diamond; David Fredericks, Australia’s secretary of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources; and SA’s Dr Phil Mjwara, DG at the Department of Science and Innovation.

Comprising of two documents, the signed agreements formalise the arrangements for the construction and operation of the SKA telescopes in the two host countries, says the SKAO in a statement.

“I am very pleased that we have finalised these agreements, which enable us to progress smoothly into the deployment of SKAO resources into Australia and South Africa, and the construction phase of the SKA telescopes,” says Diamond. “I wish to thank our colleagues in the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources in Australia, and the Department of Science and Innovation in South Africa, for their efforts throughout this process.”

“Negotiating these agreements has been a complex process involving many people over a number of years, but to now have them signed is a really important step in the delivery of the project, and the collaborative attitude of all involved sets us up well for this next, critical stage,” adds Dr Lewis Ball, SKAO director of operations, who led the last two years of negotiations.

Officially launched earlier this year, the SKAO is the intergovernmental organisation responsible for constructing and operating the SKA radio telescope. In June, the organisation and its member states approved a R34 billion budget for construction of the SKA project in South Africa and Australia.

The SKA project is an intergovernmental radio telescope project being planned to be built in the two countries. Conceived in the 1990s, and further developed and designed by the late-2010s, when completed, it will have a total collecting area of approximately one square kilometre.

It will operate over a wide range of frequencies and its size will make it 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument.

Furthermore, processing the vast quantities of data produced by the SKA will require very high-performance central supercomputers capable of in excess of 100 petaflops (one hundred thousand million million floating point operations per second) of raw processing power.

The SKAO reveals the agreement documents set out the rights and responsibilities of each party regarding the sites, assets and infrastructure required to build and operate the SKA telescopes.

Among other elements is the respective governments’ obligation to provide radio frequency interference protection for the SKA telescope sites, and the SKAO’s obligation to ensure its operations meet or exceed local and national health, safety and environmental laws.

Additionally, they cover the SKAO’s use of infrastructure, such as existing airstrips and fibre links.

The Australian HCA recognises that an indigenous land use agreement with the Wajarri Yamatji – the traditional owners of Australia’s SKA site – is being established before construction at that site begins.

“Australia’s scientific and industrial capabilities and wide open spaces position it ideally to host a project of this magnitude,” states Fredericks. “Technology spinoffs from the design of the telescopes will filter into everyday life and benefit society. The Australian government is proud to be working closely with the Wajarri Yamatji to realise this once-in-a-generation project on their traditional lands.”

In the case of SA, Mjwara welcomes the signing of the hosting agreement, as it paves the way for the construction of the SKA telescope in the country. “This will bring enormous socio-economic benefits that will result in job-creation, industry development and skills development through our participation in this mega-infrastructure project.”

According to the SKAO, it will have operations at four separate facilities in each country.

These, it says, include a remotely-located telescope array, an engineering operations centre to support the day-to-day maintenance and reliable physical operation of the telescope, a science operations centre from which the scientific programme of observations using the telescope will be run, and a science processing centre where a supercomputer will process the data acquired by the telescope to produce data products for use by astronomers from the member countries and around the world.

“Both the engineering operations centre and the science operations centre will be provided by the SKAO’s partner institutes, Australia’s national science agency CSIRO and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory on behalf of their governments, and made available to the SKAO.

“The SKA member countries plan to also operate a network of SKA regional centres that will provide the primary interface between the SKAO and the scientists who will use it.”

Further to the scope of the signed agreements is that they cover the entire projected lifespan of the SKAO’s telescopes, right up to and including decommissioning and restoration of the two sites.

“While the two documents share many commonalities, there are also differences driven by local legislative requirements. The Australian agreement highlights the obligations of both parties to the local Indigenous Wajarri Yamatji community.

“In South Africa, the HCA includes details on the incorporation of the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope into the SKA-Mid array, which will form an in-kind contribution by South Africa to the Observatory.”

The SKAO notes that forming agreements with the host countries is required by the SKA Observatory Convention, its founding document.

“Together, they will enable the Observatory to establish and operate its facilities, and to efficiently function. This includes the ability to recruit the local and international personnel it needs, as well as acquire the assets and equipment as needed for the delivery of the SKA project,” it concludes. 

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