SKA Project

Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project forges ahead in 2014

2014 is going to be a key year in the process of transforming the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope programme from vision to reality. “We’ll have a huge amount of work on the design of the SKA and its systems and subsystems ,” explains SKA Organisation director-general Professor Philip Diamond. “In the third quarter of the year, we’ll have the preliminary design reviews (PDRs) for all the work groups. No major decisions will be made until the PDRs have taken place. And I’m hoping that the hosting agreements will be finalised and agreed – but not signed. They will not be signed until the governance details are worked out.”

The SKA is going to be the biggest, most sensitive radio telescope ever built. The telescope will be co -located in Africa and in Australia, with the core of the African part in South Africa. Phase 1 of the instrument will be composed of a mid-frequency dish array in South Africa and low-frequency aperture arrays and a dish survey instrument in Australia. These arrays will collect and focus different radio wavelengths emitted by the many different categories of stars and other cosmological phenomena, including novas, supernovas, gas clouds, pulsars, quasars, and the accretion discs and gas jets associated with black holes (more formally known as singularities). This data will then have to be conveyed from the many antennas to computer networks for processing before computer-assisted analysis by astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists around the world.

“Most of the research and development (R&D) for the SKA has been done,” reports Diamond. “Decisions still have to be made, but we are in the development and design phase now. Only in some areas are we still doing R&D – most notably, concerning advanced instrumentation packages. If these come good, they may be considered for Phase 1; if not, they will be part of Phase 2.”

The SKA Organisation is the international agency set up to oversee the SKA project. A not-for-profit private company under UK law, it is based at the world-renowned Jodrell Bank Observatory, in Cheshire, England, not far from Manchester, and is coordinating all SKA activities around the world. These include the science, engineering, operations and public information programmes. The organisation’s head office building was funded by the University of Manchester, which runs Jodrell Bank. Set up in December 2011, the SKA Organisation replaced the previous, smaller, SKA Project Office (which was based on the University of Manchester campus).

“The concept of the SKA was developed in the 1990s,” says Diamond. “Astronomers were pondering the next big questions in astronomy and what instruments would be needed to try to answer them.”

The current design phase is fully funded. “We have €120-million,” he states. “The €120-million is secure. About €25-million is coming to the SKA office in cash to fund our operations, and €95-million is being provided for the consortia to fund the design work. About 65% of that €95- million is new, while 35% is existing funding for staff and institutions. Many institutions are also putting their own resources into the project, but we have no firm figures.”

For the actual construction of Phase 1 of the SKA, the board of the SKA Organisation has set a cap of €650-million. This figure is the capital expenditure for the construction of the instrument, and excludes the design costs and the operating costs. “Phase 2 will cost considerably more,” he points out. “But I can’t put a number on it yet.” The building of Phase 1 is scheduled to start in 2018 with scientific commissioning and start of operations in 2020. Phase 2 will add mid-frequency aperture antennas to the array. By the time Phase 2 is completed, the SKA will comprise thousands of dishes and millions of other antennas spread across Africa (not just South Africa) and Australia.

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