In ceremonies at both sites in Australia and South Africa, the SKA Observatory celebrated the start of construction of its world-leading radio telescopes and announced €300 million worth of construction contracts.
The SKAO’s Director-General, Prof. Philip Diamond, travelled to Western Australia to represent the Observatory at the site of the future SKA-Low telescope. Council Chair Dr Catherine Cesarsky attended the event in South Africa’s Northern Cape province where the SKA-Mid telescope will be located.
In her address, Dr Cesarsky said: “The SKA project has been many years in the making. Today, we gather here to mark another important chapter in this 30-year journey that we’ve been on together. A journey to deliver the world’s largest scientific instrument. After 18 months of intense activities around the world, we are starting construction of the SKA telescopes.”
Over the past 18 months, over 40 contracts worth more than €150 million have been entered into by the observatory. On Monday, major new construction contracts worth over €300 million were announced at the ceremonies.
Minister Ed Husic from Australia and South Africa’s Dr Blade Nzimande announced more than €200 million for Australian and South African companies to deliver some of the extensive infrastructure required for the telescopes.
The SKAO also announced the major contracts – worth €100 million – to manufacture the antennas for both telescopes, bringing the total amount of construction funds allocated so far by the observatory to close to €500 million.
Representatives of the communities surrounding the telescope sites had pride of place in both ceremonies. In Australia, guests received a traditional Welcome to Country from members of the Wajarri community, the SKA-Low site’s native title holders and Traditional Owners. Across the Indian Ocean, attendees witnessed a special “meerkat” version of the ancient riel dance around a newly-cast SKA dish foundation.
The construction commencement ceremonies took place 18 months after the SKAO’s Council approved the building of its two telescopes. Initial procurement concentrated on developing software, contracting professional services firms to help oversee construction, and bulk-buying components such as programmable circuit boards currently in short supply worldwide.
These 40 or so contracts paved the way for construction to start on site. In South Africa, this phase will eventually see 133 SKA dishes added to the existing 64 of the SKA-precursor telescope MeerKAT to form a mid-frequency instrument. Australia will host a low-frequency array of 131,072 antennas shaped like Christmas trees, allowing the two telescopes to cover a wide swath of radio frequencies.
The telescopes require vast infrastructure. Listed company Ventia will put up site-wide power and fibre infrastructure in the SKA-Low telescope’s core and spiral arms and fabricate and commission the central and remote processing facilities. In South Africa, the Power Adenco joint venture will construct gravel access roads, cast dish foundations, lay on power and optical fibre networks, erect security fencing, and more.
Competitive tendering also took place to procure the telescopes’ lead components: the antennas and dishes themselves. On Friday 2 December, the SKAO finalised the two contracts for these critical hardwares.
Italian company SIRIO will build the low-frequency antennas for the SKA-Low telescope in Western Australia, with important participation from the UK. In China, one of the Observatory’s long-term partners, CETC54, will manufacture the SKA-Mid telescope’s dish structure. Parts will be produced in several countries, including Italy, Spain, and South Africa.
In their announcements, the science ministers elaborated on the contractual conditions that the SKAO placed on infrastructure providers to include local communities.
In South Africa, the lead infrastructure contractor is required to spend a proportionate amount locally by providing a range of sub-contract opportunities to local SMMEs, on employing, training and transferring skills locally and on other community development initiatives.
In Australia, the aim is to create nearly 100 new roles for the Wajarri Yamaji and locals in the Mid West region of Western Australia.
The Indigenous Land Use Agreement recently signed between the Wajarri Yamaji and the Australian federal and Western Australian governments as well as CSIRO, expanded Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory to enable construction of the SKA telescope there.
The agreement ensures that Wajarri Yamaji cultural heritage will stay protected and that they will receive sustainable and intergenerational benefits in areas such as enterprise and training and education. About 400 km of ground was surveyed to map areas of cultural significance, and the layout of the SKA telescope array was amended to avoid significant Wajarri heritage sites.
In recognition of the agreement, the Wajarri gifted the site the traditional name – Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, meaning “sharing the sky and stars”.
“We want to be good neighbours to all of the local stakeholders where our infrastructure is located,” said Prof. Diamond. “It’s important that we play our part in supporting the local economy as well as the national one, and we’re doing our small part to ensure this is the case. For example, we’ve instructed infrastructure contractors to ensure local businesses are engaged and benefit from those contracts as well.”
With its large infrastructure and telescope component contracts in place, the SKAO is on track to reach its next milestone: ensuring that the first four SKA-Mid dishes and six SKA-Low stations (of 256 antennas each) work together as a telescope.
The first two antenna stations are due to be completed by May 2023, while the first dish is set to be installed in April 2024, followed by three to four dishes each month.
Procuring mass-produced dishes and antennas represents a step-change for radio astronomy. Instead of bespoke and one-off components, manufacturers can develop new techniques to produce such elements, potentially offering new product lines.
Thanks to the telescopes’ design as interferometers – where the signals of multiple telescopes are combined to act as one giant telescope – the first notable scientific results can be expected before the telescopes are completed at the end of the decade.
The SKA telescopes will be managed from the SKAO’s Global Headquarters at Jodrell Bank near Manchester in the United Kingdom. Scientists will use the two arrays over the course of their expected 50-year lifespan to answer crucial questions about the earliest epochs of the universe, and unravel some of the most profound mysteries in astrophysics.
“The SKA telescopes will truly revolutionise our understanding of the universe,” said Dr Cesarsky. “They will allow us to study its evolution and some of its most mysterious phenomena in unprecedented detail, and that’s really exciting for the scientific community.”
You’ll find artists’ impressions of the future telescope, pictures and video material of the ceremonies, as well as ministerial and other supporting statements in our online repository, and a dedicated webpage with more material on our website.
SKA-Low Site Construction Director, Ant Schinckel: “This event marks a wonderful milestone for the SKA Observatory and the world’s science community. We are about to begin building the world’s largest radio telescopes, and here in Australia, we are doing it with the support and close cooperation of some of the oldest astronomers in the world, the Wajarri people. I am excited to start constructing the SKA-Low telescope on this ancient land, so ideally suited for radio astronomy.”
Wajarri Yamaji Nyarlu (Wajarri Yamaji Aboriginal Corporation Chairperson), Jennylyn Hamlett: “We’re all connected to this Country, regardless of where we come from. We are Wajarri, we are here and we’re ready to share, so welcome aboard.”
SKA-Mid Site Construction Director, Tracy Cheetham: “Forming part of SARAO’s successful design and delivery of the SKA precursor MeerKAT has been incredibly rewarding. Now the moment has arrived that I’ve been working towards for the largest part of my career: managing the on-site construction of the SKA-Mid telescope under the SKAO banner. The scale of the science infrastructure investment so far provides a crucial foundation for the SKA project in South Africa. The SKA-Mid telescope promises to be of benefit to the country, global science, and our local communities that have played an instrumental role in preparing for and achieving this milestone.”
Ventia Group Executive – Telecommunications Mark Ralston: “We are thrilled to be partnering with the SKAO on this exciting and world-leading endeavour. To support the delivery of this project, nearly 100 new roles will be created for the Wajarri people and locals in the Mid West region of Western Australia. As Australia and New Zealand’s leading telecommunications infrastructure service provider, our strategy is to redefine service excellence by being client-focused, innovative and sustainable.”
SIRIO Antenne CEO, Stefania Grazioli: “We are honoured to take part in this exciting and challenging scientific project. Since 2017 we have been working and collaborating intensely with INAF and the SKAO to develop a product that could best fulfil characteristics and performances suitable to satisfy such an important task and it’s incredible how the project on paper has finally become true. This experience was extremely important for Sirio to learn how to act with large and structured international organisations. The company and the people involved in the project have had a very important opportunity to grow in experience and know-how, so we are more than proud to be part of this great project and we will do our best to be a good partner for SKAO.”
Chief Executive Adenco Construction, Kashif Wicomb: “The SKA project is truly a project of global importance and literally universal impact. Adenco Construction is proud to be associated with and working on the SKA project and being part of a South Africa and Africa based project working with a team of international experts.”
Power Construction CEO, Cobus Snyman: “It is an honour and a privilege for us at Power Construction to be a part of this prestigious project, which is set to benefit not only our company, but more importantly, improve the lives of the surrounding communities as well as our understanding of the universe. We take exceptional pride in what we do and how we do it. We are therefore looking forward in working with our partner Adenco Construction, the professional team as well as the communities to deliver this world class project for SKAO.”
CETC SKA Office Vice Director, Wang Feng: “The start of construction of the SKA telescopes and signature of the dish structure agreement marks a great milestone. The CETC54 team is honoured to take part in this mega science project. I would like to express my thanks to everyone involved in making this possible, from our technical team and cooperation partners from South Africa, Germany and Italy to the colleagues and friends from SKAO and the Ministry of Science and Technology. Without their help and support, none of this would be possible. The high performance of the SKA dish is the result of many years of Chinese research and development combined with international cooperation.”
Australia: Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic
“The cutting-edge technology for the SKA telescopes will expose Australian businesses to new skills and capabilities. We will see these changes flow on to benefit the community, the businesses involved in the project, and Australia, more broadly, for generations to come. We should all be proud of our involvement in this project. This is a historic day, and I am sure we will see many breakthroughs from the SKA project.”
South Africa: Minister of Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande
“On behalf of the South African government and its people, I congratulate the SKA Observatory on effectively managing the complex process of planning and designing the SKA telescopes. I also wish to congratulate SKAO in managing the complex intergovernmental interactions that resulted in the formation of the SKAO itself and the signing of the hosting agreements with Australia and South Africa. I therefore try to also reaffirm South Africa’s commitment to the SKA project, and pledge South African government’s continued support for the SKA Observatory as it moves into our country to continue managing the process of construction of the SKA. The official start of on site construction of the SKAO telescopes is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate excellence and multilateral collaboration in science and acknowledge the SKAO’s strong bonds with its partner nations. Moreover, this important milestone heralds a new chapter of direct relationships between SKA Observatory and the local communities around the telescope sites, in particular building on years of work in community engagement by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. The South African government welcomes the opportunities that will flow into the country, due to the construction activities of the SKA. Local companies will benefit from construction contracts [and] local people will find jobs. The financial resources flowing into the country will also uplift the economy of South Africa.” (Full statement available online.)
China: Minister of Science and Technology, Wang Zhigang
“The construction commencement ceremony is a great milestone in the development of SKAO and also the remarkable result of the long-term concerted efforts of all participating countries. In this global collaboration and endeavour on astronomical science and technology, all countries display both cooperative attitudes and pragmatic action to stay open and inclusive and seek common development. On behalf of the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, I’d like to extend warm congratulations on the commencement of construction at the SKA sites in South Africa and Australia of the next-generation SKA telescopes. Science is not bound by national borders, and innovation is a never-ending endeavour. As an important carrier to strengthen international science and technology cooperation and deepen bilateral and multilateral intergovernmental exchanges, international mega-science projects are important tools for mankind to push the frontiers of knowledge, explore the unknown and address important global issues. The SKA telescopes, an international mega-science project integrating basic sciences and cutting-edge technologies, such as radio astronomy, fundamentals of physics, mathematics and modelling, communication technology and big data, provides a major opportunity for mankind to better understand the universe. China will continue to fulfill its commitments and contribute wisdom and strength to the SKA project. Our country is willing to join hands with all participating countries in global collaboration, jointly constructing, delivering, and sharing the world’s largest synthesised aperture radio telescope to explore the vast universe and create a better future for mankind.” (Full statement available online.)
Italy: Minister of University and Research, Anna Maria Bernini
“Finally, the SKA radio telescope is no longer a mere project but a reality. The largest telescope in the world, with thousands of antennas spread across two continents, is destined to define our present and our future. It is one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken, and I am particularly proud to be able to say that this project is very much tied to Italy. Right from the onset, Italy has played a leading role through its National Institute of Astrophysics. Italy contributes to the project not only financially and in terms of technology but, first and foremost, through its excellent human resources. Something in which we are leaders. The SKA Observatory is a demonstration that Italy has all the resources to participate fully in space exploration from the ground. This is truly an extraordinary endeavour. We are taking a fundamental step towards a broader understanding of the laws that govern the universe. And perhaps also towards broadening our view of the World. As our Latin ancestors would say, ‘per aspera ad astra’. My best wishes for a fruitful exploration.”
Netherlands: Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Robbert Dijkgraaf
“The Netherlands has a long tradition in radio astronomy and contributed to the SKA radio telescope from the beginning – thirty years ago. Today marks an important milestone with the beginning of the construction on the two sites in Australia and South Africa. We are extremely proud to be a founding member of this remarkable prestigious research project that is at the very cutting edge of research. By investing in this important experiment, we are not only contributing to our understanding of the universe, but are also contributing to the greater benefit of society by stimulating global collaboration and innovation.”
Switzerland: State Secretary for Education, Research and Innovation, Martina Hirayama
“Switzerland would like to congratulate the host states on the start of construction of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory. As the host country of CERN, Switzerland is pleased to be part of this great intergovernmental, scientific and technological endeavour and is looking forward to the scientific community having access to the SKA. Great challenges lie ahead, but I trust that together we will be able to meet them. I am convinced that the SKA will allow us to achieve scientific breakthroughs, which will enable us to expand the boundaries of our knowledge.”
United Kingdom: Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, George Freeman
“This is an incredibly exciting and important moment, both for space science, but also for the increasingly commercial space sector, and for the communion of countries, nations working together to ensure that we build an open, integrated, safe space for science and the space economy going forward. So congratulations to all of those who’ve helped to make this possible. We are as the UK very proud to be one of the three host partners of the SKA Observatory and I’d like to congratulate colleagues in South Africa and Australia on achieving this latest milestone and helping us to bring one step closer operation of this really exciting observatory. After construction completion, the two complementary telescopes will be the ears on either side of the planet allowing us to listen to those murmurings from the deep universe, which are driving such excitement in both science and deeper our understanding of the universe in which we live and the origins of life. As the home of the control centre for the Observatory, the UK is helping lay the foundation for new galaxy-level discoveries through radio astronomy. Scientists, engineers and researchers across UK industry and academia are working to deliver the working brain if you like behind these two telescopes, the software systems which make space observations possible and allow us to make sense of what we see and hear. All of these efforts help to channel more funds, jobs, careers, opportunities and innovation, both into the UK economy, but just as importantly, into the global commercial space science and space economy.”
France: Director General for Research and Innovation – French Ministry of Higher Education and Research, Claire Giry
“Starting the construction of a very large infrastructure like SKA is a major milestone which is illustrative of the soundness of the scientific ambition, of the high quality of the project and of the excellent achievements of SKAO with the support of the radio astronomical community. France congratulates SKAO for this key step for the project and feels very enthusiastic with the commencement of the construction. This event gives an excellent opportunity to recall the commitment of France to contribute to the construction and scientific exploitation of SKA.”
South Korea: President of Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, Dr Young-Deuk Park
“The Korean astronomical community is greatly excited to see this construction commencement, which will be a historic moment for the SKA project. I would like to take this opportunity to deliver our gratitude from Korean astronomers to local communities around the telescope sites who allowed for the SKA telescopes to be built on their lands. Congratulations to all SKAO staff and SKAO committee members on another important milestone following the successful IGO transition and project launch. Your achievements are a result of hard work, determination and constant efforts which motivate observer countries including South Korea. As a long-time observer of the SKA project, which is building the world’s largest radio telescope through international cooperation, KASI hopes to be able to provide concrete ways to participate in this transformational science opportunity in the near future. I send my warmest congratulations on the construction commencement. I wish you continued success in the future endeavours for SKA.”
Spain: Minister for Science and Innovation, Diana Morant
“After so many years of study and design work, witnessing the commencement of the construction of the SKA is like seeing a dream come true. For Spain, our participation in SKA is a strategic investment of high priority, as it will be one of the most important scientific infrastructures in the world for decades. We are delighted to be part, with our partners, in this great adventure, to see our industry actively participating in the construction, and to guarantee our scientists access to an Observatory that will be the scene of great discoveries.”
About the SKAO
The SKAO, formally known as the SKA Observatory, is an intergovernmental organisation composed of Member States from five continents and headquartered in the UK. Its mission is to build and operate cutting-edge radio telescopes to transform our understanding of the Universe, and deliver benefits to society through global collaboration and innovation.
Its two telescopes, each composed of hundreds of dishes and thousands of antennas, will be constructed in South Africa and Australia and be the two most advanced radio telescopes on Earth. A later expansion is envisioned in both countries and other African partner countries.
Together with other state-of-the-art research facilities, the SKAO’s telescopes will explore the unknown frontiers of science and deepen our understanding of key processes, including the formation and evolution of galaxies, fundamental physics in extreme environments and the origins of life. Through the development of innovative technologies and its contribution to addressing societal challenges, the SKAO will play its part to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and deliver significant benefits across its membership and beyond.
The SKAO recognises and acknowledges the Indigenous peoples and cultures that have traditionally lived on the lands on which the SKAO facilities are located. In Australia, the SKAO acknowledges the Wajarri Yamaji as the Traditional Owners and native title holders of Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.
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