SKA Project: Helping to answer some of life’s great questions

For many years it seemed that science and exploration was the exclusive right of individual countries. Anyone of a certain age will remember the Space Race between the USA and former Russia and the cloak of secrecy that pervaded around projects.

SKAToday countries recognise the importance of collaboration as people around the globe face the same sets of challenges.

South Africa’s Karoo Desert is the setting for joint efforts on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project – a truly international collaboration to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with a square kilometre (one million square metres) of collecting area.

Once completed, the SKA will use hundreds of thousands of radio telescopes, in 3 unique configurations, which will enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and survey the entire sky thousands of times faster than any system currently in existence.

The SKA telescopes will be co-located in Africa and in Australia, with the Karoo Desert hosting most of the high and mid frequencies of the radio spectrum which will have telescopes spread all over the Continent, while Australia’s Murchison region will be responsible for covering the low frequency range and hosting the survey instrument.

The united effort to build the telescope is considered to be a big leap in progression for engineering and research and development and the project is one of the biggest of its kind in history, bringing some of the best scientific brains in the world together.

There are 11 member countries (including India, which is an associate member) involved in the project, however the SKA in reality is the combined efforts of roughly 100 organisations hailing from 20 countries, who have contributed to the design and development of the SKA.

The member countries of the SKA Organisation are: Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom and the organisation is managed by the not-for-profit SKA Organisation, headquartered at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester in the United Kingdom.

The SKA Organisation was established in December 2011 to co-ordinate international efforts but for the history of the SAK, one has to go back 21 years to September 1993, when the International Union of Radio Science (URSI) established the Large Telescope Working Group to begin a worldwide effort to develop the scientific goals and technical specifications for a next generation radio observatory.

2007 proved an important year in the development of the SKA Project as a new International Collaboration Agreement for the SKA Program was drawn up in 2007, which became effective on 1 January 2008.

That same year saw Manchester chosen as headquarters for activities, while a Memorandum of Agreement to establish the SKA Program Development Office (SPDO) was also signed. This provided a framework to internationalise the technology development and design effort of the SKA.

This was essential as the team of world leading scientists and engineers set to work on designing a system requiring supercomputers that can operation faster than any other, with network technology generating more data traffic than the entire Internet.

In November 2013, the South African Government recognised the importance of carefully managing Intellectual Property rights for the project, to ensure that scientists and engineers working on the SKA (Square Kilometre Array) can collaborate effectively.

The overriding aim is to ensure that the participants in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project, including the MeerKAT, are able to engage in the development, delivery, operation and maintenance of SKA technology without the concern that their activities may be blocked by the enforcement of intellectual property (IP) rights,” stated Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom.

Access to the technology developed within the framework of the SKA project without the encumbrance of exclusionary monopoly rights is crucial to the success of the SKA Project.

Researchers working on the project are expected to share their work so that others may build on best practice, and if there are restrictions in terms of IP rights, it may limit the ability to create technology solutions the project requires.

The construction of Phase 1 is set to commence in 2018 and is scheduled to last 5 years, developing a range of telescopes capable of carrying out the first science in low and mid frequencies. The second Phase will follow this and will include the addition of high frequency dishes, providing full sensitivity for frequencies up to 20 GHz.

Pre-construction work started in 2012 and is expected to continue though to the latter half of this decade, focusing on the detailed design, implementation, R&D work, and contract preparation needed to bring the SKA’s first phase to construction readiness.

The SKA website explains how the two main Phases of work will roll-out:

For SKA Phase 1, Australia will host the low-frequency telescopes with more than 900 stations, each containing a bit less than 300 individual dipole antennas, as well as a 96-dish ‘SKA1-Survey’ telescope, incorporating the existing 36-dish ASKAP, whilst South Africa will host an array of 254 dishes, incorporating the 64-dish MeerKAT precursor telescope.

Phase 2 will complete the telescope arrays at both sites, and become fully operational in the mid 2020s, by which time, several thousand high frequency and mid frequency telescopes and aperture arrays will augment the millions of low frequency antenna.”

This exciting project really is bringing the world together, with South Africa playing a major role in creating a scientific research legacy for generations to come. The SKA Project website explains how this development will benefit future scientists and might help to answer some of life’s greatest questions:

The SKA will be able to conduct transformational science, breaking new ground in astronomical observations. SKA scientists have focussed on 5 key science goals for the telescope, each of which will re-define our understanding of space as we know it.

From challenging Einstein’s seminal theory of relativity to the limits, looking at how the very first stars and galaxies formed just after the big bang, in a way never before observed in any detail, helping scientists understand the nature of a mysterious force known as dark energy, the discovery of which gained the Nobel prize for physics, through to understanding the vast magnetic fields which permeate the cosmos, and, one of the greatest mysteries known to humankind…are we alone in the Universe, the SKA will truly be at the forefront of scientific research.”