SKA (Square Kilometer Array) Radio TelescopesSKA Location Overall Status Australia Antenna Array ASKAP development and mission status
Africa Radio Telescope Array MeerKAT development and mission status References
The SKA project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with eventually over a square kilometer (one million square meters) of collecting area. The scale of the SKA represents a huge leap forward in both engineering and research & development towards building and delivering a unique instrument, with the detailed design and preparation now well under way. As one of the largest scientific endeavors in history, the SKA will bring together a wealth of the world’s finest scientists, engineers and policy makers to bring the project to fruition. 1)
Background: The history of the SKA begin in September 1993 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. 2)
Subsequent meetings of the working group provided a forum for discussing the technical research required and for mobilizing a broad scientific community to cooperate in achieving this common goal. In 1997, eight institutions from six countries (Australia, Canada, China, India, the Netherlands, and the USA) signed a Memorandum of Agreement to cooperate in a technology study program leading to a future very large radio telescope.
On August 10, 2000, at the International Astronomical Union meeting in Manchester, UK, a Memorandum of Understanding to establish the ISSC (International Square Kilometer Array Steering Committee) was signed by representatives of eleven countries (Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States).
This was superseded by a Memorandum of Agreement to Collaborate in the Development of the Square Kilometer Array which came into force on 1 January 2005 and which has been extended until 31 December 2007. This made provision for the expansion of the Steering Committee to 21 members (7 each for Europe, USA, and the Rest of the World) and the establishment of the International SKA Project Office.
In 2007, owing to a proposed expansion of the ISPO (International SKA Project Office), the ISSC called for proposals to host the Project Office. Three proposals were received, and following extensive discussion, the ISSC selected the University of Manchester as the host organization for the Project Office. A Memorandum of Agreement between the ISSC and the University of Manchester was signed in October 2007. The Project Office moved to the new Alan Turing building in Manchester, also home to the Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics, on 1 January 2008.
A new International Collaboration Agreement for the SKA Program was drawn up in 2007, which became effective on 1 January 2008. It was signed by the European, US, and Canadian SKA Consortia, the Australian SKA Coordination Committee, the National Research Foundation in South Africa, the National Astronomical Observatories in China, and the National Center for Radio Astrophysics in India. This agreement established the SKA Science and Engineering Committee (SSEC) as a replacement to the ISSC. The SSEC acts as the primary forum for interactions and decisions on scientific and technical matters for the SKA among the signatories to the International Collaboration Agreement.
A further agreement was drawn up in 2007, a Memorandum of Agreement to establish the SKA Program Development Office (SPDO). This provided a framework to internationalize the technology development and design effort of the SKA. This agreement, which became effective on 1 January 2008, was signed by the CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility, University of Calgary, Cornell University, the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe, and the National Research Foundation in South Africa. It agreed that the SPDO would be funded by signatories of this agreement, with payments being made into the SPDO Common Fund and used to finance the SPDO’s operational activities.
The project is now led by the SKA Organization, a not-for-profit company. The organization was established in December 2011 to formalize relationships between the international partners and centralize the leadership of the project.
The Office of the SKA Organization is growing rapidly and in November 2012 the office, previously based at the University of Manchester in the center of the city, relocated to a new building at the world famous Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, UK. The SKAO Headquarters is the central control hub for a global team who over the next decade is building the SKA – The largest radio telescope ever seen on Earth.
• Participating Countries: Organizations from eleven countries are currently members of the SKA Organisation – Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Further countries have expressed their interest in joining the SKA Organisation which will continue to expand over the coming years. 3)
Figure 1: While 11 member countries are the core of the SKA, around 100 organisations across about 20 countries (including France, Germany, Japan, Portugal) have been participating in the design and development of the SKA and are now engaged in the detailed design of the telescope (image crdit: SKA)
Here is a list of links to the key participating nations:
- Australia: Department of Industry and Science
- Canada: National Research Council
- Italy: National Institute for Astrophysics
- New Zealand: Ministry of Economic Development
- South Africa: National Research Foundation
- Sweden: Onsala Space Observatory
- The Netherlands: Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research
- United Kingdom: Science and Technology Facilities Council
• During 2013, the SKA Organization sent out requests to research organizations and commercial partners to participate in the analysis and design of the components of the SKA’s 3-year final detailed design phase. This request for proposals included a reference conceptual design of the telescope, a work breakdown structure, a statement of the work required and additional reference documents. 4)
- As with other projects of this magnitude, such as the development of the Large Hadron Collider or space programs, the SKA is broken down into various elements, known as work packages that will form the final SKA telescope. Each work package element is managed by an international consortium comprising several world leading experts in their respective fields.
- The strategic aim of the SKA Organisation is that the work undertaken within each of the consortia is focused on these specific elements of the SKA project and that their work will cover the entire final phase of the pre-construction period, with critical design reviews along the way.
- The SKA Organisation will play a key role in the management of these teams around the world, ensuring that all of the elements integrate to form this unique telescope over the coming years. Each consortium has provided detailed management and verification plans, schedules, milestones and budgets for the various elements they will be working on.
- The consortia responsible for each work package are listed as follows. Click on each to get more detailed information on each work package and the team responsible for its delivery.
c) Dish (DSH)
Collaboration between the various teams will be a key part of their involvement, as there will be a huge requirement to ensure that the various elements interface seamlessly together, much like a jigsaw, but one that will be refined and iterate to a better solution as time progresses.
Technical descriptions for the Work Packages at a global level
Summaries of Technical Descriptions for each of the Work Packages are as follows: (PDF links)
• January 23, 2017: SKA-AAMID (Aperture Array MID Frequency) telescope. 5)
The Location of the SKA
In 2012 the members of the SKA Organization agreed on a dual site location for the Square Kilometer Array telescope as well as a third site for the SKA HQ. 6)
The two sites which will host the core of the SKA Telescope are Australia and South Africa, whilst the SKA Organization Headquarters is in the UK.
This decision to collocate the telescopes in two sites came after careful consideration of all of the science goals, industry goals and suitability in terms of location, sustainability, local considerations and factors relating to economics and the site infrastructure.
The following are some of the criteria that were taken into account:
• Radio frequency interference from mobile phones, TVs, radios and other electrical devices.
• The characteristics of the ionosphere (the upper part of the Earth’s atmosphere) and the troposphere (the lower part of the Earth’s atmosphere).
• Physical characteristics of the site including climate and subsurface temperatures.
• Connectivity across the vast extent of the telescope itself as well as to communications networks for worldwide distribution of data produced by the SKA.
• Infrastructure costs, including power supply and distribution.
• Operations and maintenance costs.
• The long term sustainability of the site as a radio quiet zone.
In July 2013, the SKA Board passed the following resolution: ‘Following the recommendation of the Director-General of the SKA Organization, the SKA Board has instructed the SKA Office to proceed with the design phase for SKA Phase 1 (SKA1) assuming a capital expenditure cost ceiling for construction of €650 M. The evolution of the SKA Phase 1 project to fit within this cost ceiling will be guided both during the design phase and construction by scientific and engineering assessments of the baseline design undertaken by the SKA Office in collaboration with the community and SKA’s advisory bodies including the Science and Engineering Advisory Committee (SEAC). This decision is consistent with the primary objective of building an exciting, next-generation telescope capable of transformational science.’
Table 1: SKA1 baseline design: boundary conditions, design timeline, MID baseline sciene, MID baseline design 7)
Figure 2: SKA1 construction start 2018 (image credit: SKA Office)
Figure 3: SKA2 construction start 2022 (image credit: SKA Office)
Figure 4: SKA overall timeline (image credit: SKA Office)
SKAO (Square Kilometer Array Observatory) overall status
• April 11, 2022: France is in the home straight to join the SKA Observatory (SKAO) as a full member. The milestone is in sight after the French government signed an accession agreement with the Observatory on Monday 11 April 2022. 8)
- The signing ceremony took place at the French embassy in London with Her Excellency Ambassador Catherine Colonna doing the honours on behalf of the French Republic and the Head of the Director-General’s Office Dr Simon Berry signing for the Observatory. In attendance was the Chair of the SKAO Council, Dr Catherine Cesarsky, representatives from the SKAO and the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, and the Director of Maison SKA-France, Dr Chiara Ferrari.
Figure 5: Her Excellency Ambassador Catherine Colonna and the Head of the Director-General’s Office Dr Simon Berry signing an accession agreement between the French government and the SKA Observatory (image credit: France in the UK)
- “I am delighted to sign this crucial scientific agreement which will allow France to join the SKAO,” said Ambassador Catherine Colonna. “This signature reflects the interest of my country to play a major role at the international and inter-governmental level not only to increase our basic knowledge in astrophysics but also to understand the origin and to follow the evolution of our planet.”
- Following a decision by the SKAO Council and confirmation of intent by President Emmanuel Macron in 2021, the signature of the agreement means that France will now start the process of ratifying the Convention establishing the SKAO through its national processes. The resulting international instrument of accession will then be deposited at the British government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London, as the depositary of the Observatory Convention, to formally complete the membership process.
- Until then, French participation in the Observatory is possible through the cooperation agreement that the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) signed with the SKAO on 7 March 2022. French engineers helped design the SKA telescope dishes, low-frequency antennas, receivers, and signal processors during the project’s preconstruction phase while French scientists have been involved in each of the SKAO Science Working Groups.
- “I am delighted that France has now initiated the process of joining the SKAO as a full member,” said the SKAO’s Director-General, Prof. Philip Diamond. “We have relied on the expertise of our French colleagues in radio astronomy, processing, and technology over the years and I look forward to their valued contributions in reaching the SKAO’s ambitious goals. To our French friends, I say bienvenue!”
- Dr Cesarsky added: “The Council has always been keen to attract a wide international participation in the SKA project and so I’m delighted to see France realise the President’s intent and make a strong commitment to this growing intergovernmental observatory.”
- SKAO membership is growing apace, with Switzerland having joined the Observatory’s seven founding members – Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, and the United Kingdom – at the end of 2021.
• December 21, 2021: Worth approximately €90 million in total, the contracts have been awarded to all seven current SKAO members, namely Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. The majority of awards have been for software development with additional early contract awards for professional services contracts. These expand the SKAO’s own engineering and management capabilities ahead of further construction work, as well as procuring early components and subsystems needed for the first arrays. 9)
- So, what’s been happening since construction was approved? And how does it all work? Let’s take a deep dive.
- First off, teams are building on years and years of pre-construction design activity by partners all around the world that culminated in the production of the SKA Phase 1 Construction Proposal earlier this year. This thorough document of 256 pages stipulated the design baseline for the SKA telescopes, the work packages and construction milestones, as well as how member countries would benefit from their investment in the project by way of fair work return.
- Building on those years of preparatory work and substantial financial investment in the design of the SKA, countries expressed interest in supplying specific elements in which they had expertise such as the antennas, the supercomputers, the networks, software, etc. This resulted in a model where most contracts would be allocated to specific member countries, while unallocated contracts would be offered to all members.
- The result: over 60 “Tier 1” contracts placed by the SKAO. The vast majority are cash where the SKAO is the client, while a few are in-kind – paid for directly by countries. Below them sit “Tier 2” contracts, placed between Tier 1 contractors and sub-contractors to deliver specific elements of the contract.
- “There’s been a huge amount of work by teams within the Observatory and across the partnership over time which has accelerated in the recent past to ensure industry-readiness as soon as we’d hit the go button,” explains the SKAO’s Head of Procurement Services, Ian Hastings (read our piece on procurement preparations ramping up in December 2020 here).
- The “go button” Ian talks about was the approval of construction by the SKAO Council at the end of June 2021. This thrusted the SKA’s procurement process into its second stage: purchasing.
• SKAO Global Headquarters, Jodrell Bank, UK, 14 December 2021: The United Nations General Assembly has promulgated 2022 as the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development – an initiative backed by the SKAO.
- The SKA Observatory (SKAO) sits on the initiative’s steering committee together with 25 other international scientific unions and partners, including fellow intergovernmental organisations CERN and ITER, and the International Astronomical Union.
- The General Assembly motivated its decision by highlighting “the high value for humankind of basic sciences” and stating that basic sciences are vital “to improve the quality of life for people all over the world”.
- The international year will provide a unique opportunity to showcase and improve the links between basic sciences and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be reached by 2030.
Observatory contributes to 14 goals
- Sustainability is one of the SKAO’s foundational values, with the Observatory and its partners contributing to 14 of the 17 SDGs.
- “We have committed to building a sustainable Observatory; this must lie at the heart of any 21st-century scientific facility,” said the SKAO’s Director-General, Prof Philip Diamond. “As such, as we deliver on our ambition to push technological boundaries to transform our view of the universe and advance knowledge, we will ensure that our actions always consider sustainability and we will do our part in delivering on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.”
- Although construction of the SKA telescopes only started in July 2021, the project has already produced a tangible and visible contribution to the SDGs. This is thanks to the contribution of partners around the world over many years of development, including building capacity and skills, generating innovation, creating jobs, boosting economies, training the new generation of scientists and engineers, but also responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.
- In its announcement, the UN said the successes in the global fight against the ongoing pandemic is a current reminder of the globe’s reliance on basic sciences.
Official launch in mid-2022
- The International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development (IYBSSD) is due to be officially launched at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris in mid-2022. It will be marked by a number of conferences and cornerstone projects on different continents, with the SKAO planning its own series of activities in line with the international year.
- The resolution was co-sponsored by 37 countries, including SKAO members and prospective member countries South Africa, Spain, India, and Japan.
- Find more information on the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development at https://www.iybssd2022.org.
Figure 6: A wide view of the 43rd plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly that saw 2022-23 promulgated as the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development (image credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe)
• November 29, 2021: The SKA Observatory (SKAO) and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) have signed a cooperation agreement for two years while the country’s federal government gives membership of the SKAO full consideration. 10)
- The NRC will deliver the digital correlator, the “brain” behind the SKAO’s telescope in South Africa. The agreement also allows Canada’s scientific and engineering communities to continue participation in the project.
Figure 7: Prof Phil Diamond (left), SKAO Director-General, and NRC President Iain Stewart signed the cooperation agreement during an online ceremony on 24 November 2021 (image credit: SKAO)
Access to SKA a top priority
- Canada has been a member of the SKAO’s predecessor, the SKA Organisation, since its creation in 2011 and has been involved in the SKA Project from its earliest stages. Canadian astronomers have identified access to the SKA as a top priority in their decadal Long-Range Plans in 2000, 2010, and 2020. Scientists from across the country participate in nearly all SKAO science working groups, covering the gamut from the astronomical systems that are thought to form the cradle of life, to the earliest properties of our Universe.
- “This agreement is important in solidifying Canada’s ongoing interest in the SKA Observatory through the National Research Council of Canada,” said Prof Phil Diamond, SKAO Director-General. “Our Canadian colleagues have been key partners in the SKA Project since its inception, with significant contributions to the design of our telescopes. We look forward to continuing discussions with the NRC and the Canadian government about membership.”
- Dr Kristine Spekkens, Canada’s SKA Science Director and Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University, said: “The SKA will be a fantastic facility that will enable Canadian astronomers to make important new discoveries about how the Universe works. The synergy between the capabilities of the SKA and the expertise of many Canadian astronomers is a key reason for the SKA’s high priority within our community.”
Spin-offs to help advance other industries
- While an optical telescope captures only the visible light from the electromagnetic spectrum, radio telescopes reveal the radio portion of the spectrum emitted from objects in space. When received by telescopes, these distant signals are both faint and buried in noise.
- Canadian data processing technology – developed by the NRC’s Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre and industry partner MDA – is behind the extraordinary effort to identify and measure the weak signals from space in the large data stream coming from the SKA telescope in South Africa. Technical contributions to the SKAO telescopes have spin-off applications, which will help to advance other, far-reaching industries, from data centres to satellite communications, robotics, and more.
- “This agreement will support leading-edge astronomy, and create opportunities for Canadian industry with applications in areas such as telecommunications, consumer electronics and data centres, and open doors for ground-breaking discoveries by Canadian astronomers,” said NRC President Iain Stewart. “We are pleased to continue collaboration with our international partners on this transformative science facility.”
Positive socio-economic impacts already generated
- Beyond transformative science and technology, impacts on society and communities have been a core consideration of the SKAO’s mission. In particular, respecting Indigenous cultures and the local populations, and engaging positively with them, has been a key consideration for the SKA Project since early in its design phase. These core principles are well aligned with the priorities of the Canadian astronomical community as expressed in the 2020 Long Range Plan for Canadian Astronomy.
- SKAO and its precursor and pathfinder facilities around the world have already generated socio-economic impacts in a number of areas. These range from creating employment for local communities, boosting local education and local astro-tourism, to celebrating artists and ancient cultural wisdom from the Australian and South African sites through the Shared Sky Indigenous astronomy and art exhibition. Building upon this, the SKAO will impact four core areas: the economy; society; sustainability and culture; and will contribute to addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
• July 3, 2021: A multibillion-dollar radio telescope is moving into its construction phase while still working to raise funding and deal with satellite megaconstellations whose interference “change the game” for their plans. 11)
- In a June 29 talk at the annual meeting of the European Astronomical Society, Philip Diamond, director general of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Observatory, announced that the observatory’s council had formally approval plans to move into the construction phase of the radio telescope.
- SKA is two separate facilities. SKA-Low, in Western Australia, will eventually be an array of more than 130,000 antennas performing observations at low frequencies. SKA-Mid will feature 197 dishes in South Africa for midrange radio frequencies, including 64 dishes of the existing MeerKAT array there.
- The council’s decision allowed the SKA to move into its construction phase on July 1. “We won’t see shovels in the round on the first of July,” he said, but rather requests for proposal to build various aspects of the two facilities. The observatory expects that construction to be completed by 2029.
- The SKA is designed to support a wide range of astronomy research, from studies of dark energy and pulsars to astrobiology. The concept for the SKA dates back three decades, when astronomers first considered concepts for a radio telescope that, as the name suggests, would span a square kilometer. Those concepts later evolved to the current design with facilities on two continents.
- One technological challenge that has also evolved over that time is radio-frequency interference. “We radio astronomers have been used to dealing with the interference from satellites and aircraft systems,” Diamond said at a June 29 press briefing. “What the megaconstellations do is that they change the game for us.”
- The difference is the sheer number of satellites, with proposals for potentially many tens of thousands of satellites. Many will be operating on frequencies that SKA-Mid, which operates between 350 megahertz and 15.3 gigahertz, is tuned to observe. While radio astronomy has priority for a few bands in that range, the satellites will be broadcasting — legally, he acknowledged — on many others.
- Diamond said the SKA was in technical discussions with satellite operators on mitigation measures “that would significantly limit the impact on the SKA telescopes.” He didn’t elaborate on the specific measures.
- During a talk at the conference July 2, Federico Di Vruno, spectrum manager of the SKA Observatory, said the observatory had developed “flagging and excision” technologies to identify radio-frequency interference by satellites and removing it from the data. “This represents a loss of observing time,” he said, but such interference from the constellations by OneWeb and SpaceX would account for less than four percent of observations.
- However, he warned that even if the problem is manageable with those constellations, future systems would only increase the problem. That includes expansions of both OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink as well as the proposed Chinese Guowang constellation that could ultimately have 13,000 satellites.
- “The prospect of constellations of tens of thousands of satellites is extremely concerning for radio astronomy,” he said. Operators, he suggested, could help by agreeing not to transmit when their satellites are passing over “radio quiet zones” surrounding the antennas.
- The SKA faces a separate challenge: raising the funding needed to build the two facilities. The observatory estimates spending 2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) to build and operate the SKA over the next decade. Diamond said that the SKA Observatory, a multinational organization, was still working to raise the money from more than a dozen countries.
- “We have raised the large majority of the required funding,” Diamond said, but declined to give a specific figure. “The members would not have been willing to go ahead with the decision to proceed with construction if they didn’t feel comfortable the requisite funds would flow.”
- “We have some years in front of us to raise the additional funds that we need, which is very much a minority,” he said.
- Notably absent from the SKA Observatory is the United States. Diamond said that American astronomers were involved in early planning for the radio telescope, and at one point the United States was expected to provide a third of the funding. However, the SKA did not emerge as a priority in the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey, where American astronomers instead selected other ground-based telescopes as more worthy of funding.
- “The timing of the decadal survey didn’t align with the SKA timing,” he said. “The U.S. SKA activities did not get a high enough priority, so the U.S. funds were — unfortunately, from our perspective — directed to other highly deserving projects.”
- American astronomers, he added, remain involved in SKA activities, including reviews. “It’s definitely not a divorce,” he said. “It’s just a fact of life from the 2010 decadal survey.”
• June 29, 2021: SKA Observatory Global Headquarters, UK, Tuesday 29 June 2021 – At a historic meeting of its Council last week, the recently formed SKA Observatory (SKAO) saw its Member States approve the start of construction of the SKA telescopes in Australia and South Africa. 12)
- The two telescopes, currently designated SKA-Low and SKA-Mid, names which describe the radio frequency range they each cover, will be the two largest and most complex networks of radio telescopes ever built.
- The decision to approve construction follows the creation of the SKAO as an intergovernmental organization earlier this year, and the publication of two key documents, the Observatory’s Construction Proposal and Observatory Establishment and Delivery Plan, last year. The documents are the culmination of over seven years of design and engineering work by more than 500 experts from 20 countries to develop and test the technologies needed to build and operate the state-of-the-art telescopes. Eleven international consortia representing more than 100 institutions including research labs, universities and companies from around the world, designed the antennas, networks, computing, software, and infrastructure needed for the telescopes to function.
- “I am ecstatic. This moment has been 30 years in the making,” said SKAO Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond. “Today, humankind is taking another giant leap by committing to build what will be the largest science facility of its kind on the planet; not just one but the two largest and most complex radio telescope networks, designed to unlock some of the most fascinating secrets of our Universe.”
- “I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to making this possible over the past decades, from the early inception of the project until now, and in particular all the teams who have worked so hard over recent years and powered on through a pandemic in very difficult circumstances to meet deadlines and make this milestone possible. I would also like to thank our Member States for their vision and the trust they’re placing in us by investing in a large-scale, long-term research infrastructure at a time when public finances are under intense pressure.”
- “I would like to add my thanks to the members of the SKAO Council and the governments they represent,” said Dr Catherine Cesarsky, Chairperson of the SKAO Council. “Giving the green light to start the construction of the SKA telescopes shows their confidence in the professional work that’s been done by the SKAO to get here, with a sound plan that is ready for implementation, and in the bright future of this ground-breaking research facility.”
- In addition to delivering exciting and revolutionary science, the construction of the SKA telescopes will produce tangible societal and economic benefits for countries involved in the project through direct and indirect economic returns from innovation and technological spin-offs, new high-tech jobs and boosted industrial capacity, among others. The well-documented impact prospect of the SKA Project (detailed in the Construction Proposal), outlining the multiple benefits already flowing to Member States and their communities thanks to their involvement in SKA-related activities over the last few years, was a key part of the case for the project.
- The SKA Project has seen impressive progress in recent months, with the successful completion of the ratification process of the SKAO treaty by all seven initial signatories, Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom; excellent progress from France and Spain towards membership of the Observatory; and the signature of a cooperation agreement with Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne on behalf of Switzerland, with the Swiss government announcing its intention to eventually join the SKAO, pending approval from Parliament on the funding required for the participation of Switzerland until 2030. Other countries, including those that also took part in the design phase of the SKA telescopes (Canada, Germany, India, and Sweden), and other more recent joiners such as Japan and South Korea, complete the select list of Observers in the Council.
- “Today’s commitment by Member States is a strong signal for others to get aboard and reap the benefits of participation in this one-of-a-kind research facility,” added Dr Cesarsky.
Figure 8: The cost of constructing the two telescopes and the associated operations and business-enabling functions will be €2billion over the period 2021 – 2030 (video credit: SKAO)
- Over the past few years, the excitement in the science community about using the SKA telescopes to answer some of the most fundamental questions about our Universe, has been growing. Recent meetings have demonstrated this huge scientific interest, with close to 1,000 scientists taking part in the latest SKAO Science Meeting in March of this year. More than 1,000 researchers from hundreds of institutions across 40 countries are involved in the SKAO’s Science Working Groups that are working to ensure that the maximum science potential of the new observatory can be quickly realized.
- There has been significant engagement between the SKAO’s local partners, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), and local communities in preparation for the start of construction. In South Africa, SARAO has a memorandum of understanding with Agri-SA, many of whose members own farms which share boundaries with the MeerKAT radio telescope core or will host antennas part of the SKA-Mid telescope in the three spiral arms.
- Respectful dialogue and engagement with Indigenous communities has also been a hallmark of the project, with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the San Council of South Africa and SARAO and, just last week, in‑principle support for the project from the Wajarri Yamaji, the traditional owners of the land on which the SKA-Low telescope will be built.
- “The SKAO will be a good neighbor and will work with local stakeholders, and in particular Indigenous communities, to ensure that they also benefit from the SKA project alongside other stakeholders nationally and internationally,” added Prof. Diamond. “We certainly intend to play our part in supporting local communities and boosting the local economy.”
- Procurement of major contracts for the SKA telescopes will start immediately, with some market surveys having already been conducted in the past few weeks. Over the coming months, some 70 contracts will be placed by the SKAO within its Member States, with competitive bidding taking place within each country.
- The first significant activity on site is due to happen early next year, with construction of the telescopes lasting until 2028. Early science opportunities will start in the next few years, taking advantage of the nature of radio telescope arrays, also known as interferometers, which allow observations with only a subset of the full array. The telescopes are planned to have a productive scientific lifetime of 50 years or more.
Figure 9: Prof. Philip Diamond, SKAO Director-General, looks back at 30 years of scientific, engineering and diplomatic milestones that have made the SKA project possible as the green light is given for construction of the SKA telescopes to start (video credit: SKA Observatory)
• June 3, 2021: China has ratified the Convention Establishing the SKA Observatory (SKAO), following the approval of the national legislature and signature of President Xi Jinping. 13)
- China is the seventh country to complete its ratification process, joining the Netherlands, Italy, South Africa, Australia, the UK and Portugal as a Member of the Observatory. National participation in the SKAO is led by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST).
- The Convention, signed in Rome on 12 March 2019, is the founding document of the SKA Observatory, the intergovernmental organization responsible for building and operating the SKA telescopes. The Convention came into force in January 2021 and the SKAO was formally launched on 4 February at its first Council meeting.
- “I am delighted to welcome China as a founding member of the SKA Observatory following this ratification,” said SKAO Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond. “Our Chinese colleagues have been great supporters of the SKA project in science, engineering and governance from the beginning. Their expertise during the design and development phases for the SKA telescopes, and the many fruitful collaborations forged between Chinese institutes and other SKAO partners, will continue to be essential as we begin construction in the coming months.”
- Chinese industry led the international consortium tasked with designing the SKA-Mid telescope dishes and manufactured two prototype dishes. The two dishes were assembled in Shijiazhuang in 2018 and one remained at the manufacturing facility to undergo further performance testing, while the other one was shipped to its final location at the South African site the following year for testing in the field. Looking ahead, as a Member, China is poised to lead the delivery of the full suite of dishes that will make up the SKA telescope array in South Africa.
- Another significant contribution from China to the project has been the first prototype SKA Regional Centre (SRC) at Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, which has since been joined by prototypes in more SKAO partner countries. These prototypes are paving the way for the future SRCs, an international network of high-performance computing facilities through which data from the SKAO telescopes will be processed, stored and accessed by astronomers around the world. The SRC network will provide storage for around 700 PB of astronomical data per year (the equivalent of close to 1.5 million 500 GB laptops).
- The team behind the Chinese SRC prototype has also collaborated internationally with other SRC teams and supercomputing centers to develop SKA data pipelines which have pushed the boundaries of data processing. This work, showcased at the 2019 SKA engineering meeting in Shanghai, was selected as a finalist for the prestigious Gordon Bell Prize, the supercomputing equivalent to the Nobel Prize.
- Researchers based at Chinese institutions are active in the SKA science community, with some 50 researchers participating in 13 of the SKAO’s Science Working Groups, helping to evolve and refine the science cases for the telescopes. China’s astronomy community is expanding rapidly, supported by strong investment in the field, the growth of education and training opportunities for Chinese students particularly on the data science front, and the increasing involvement of Chinese researchers in international collaborations using SKA pathfinder and precursor telescopes.
- The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China’s Guizhou province, a stunning feat of engineering and the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, is part of the SKA pathfinder family of telescopes providing science and technology insights for the future SKAO telescopes. Inaugurated just a few years ago in 2016, FAST recently opened to the international community for the first time and has already been involved in breakthroughs, particularly in the area of pulsar science.
- China’s involvement in the SKA Project also provides powerful examples of the wider impact of radio astronomy in society, from the development of a burgeoning astro-tourism industry close to the FAST site, to regular summer schools training a new generation of researchers using data from the prototype SKA Regional Centre.
- All of the original signatories of the SKAO Convention have now completed their ratification processes, and more countries are due to join the Observatory in the coming weeks and months,” Prof. Diamond adds. “That puts us in a great position as we look to the next major milestone, the Council’s decision on approval of construction, that we expect to happen very shortly.”
• May 28 2021: “France will join the SKA Observatory.” With these words, French President Emmanuel Macron announced France’s accession to the intergovernmental organization while on a state visit to South Africa. Alongside Australia, South Africa is one of the host countries of the SKA Observatory (SKAO) radio telescopes, scientific instruments that promise to revolutionize our understanding of the Universe. 14)
- The announcement follows a unanimous decision by the SKAO Council, and makes France the first country to join the Observatory beyond its seven founding members: Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
- In a joint communiqué following the visit, both President Macron and President Ramaphosa highlighted a number of aspects that the SKA project is poised to address, including building businesses and entrepreneurs and providing education and skills development for the future.
- “I am absolutely delighted to welcome France as a new member of the SKA Observatory,” said Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond from the SKAO Global Headquarters near Manchester in the UK. “Our French colleagues have extensive expertise in radio astronomy, processing and technology and have been important partners of the project over recent years. During the pre-construction phase of the SKAO telescopes, French scientists and engineers have engaged very positively in key aspects of the design and SKAO-relevant science, and have built a strong case for investment from their government to support the ambitious goals of the SKAO. I expect France’s contribution in many areas of the project will be critical over the coming years as we tackle construction and operations.”
- France has a 70-year history of radio astronomy, and its Nançay Radio-astronomy Station is home to antennas of an International LOFAR station and of the New Extension in Nançay Upgrading LOFAR (NenuFAR), both SKA pathfinder facilities.
Figure 10: French President Emmanuel Macron and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during President Macron’s state visit to South Africa on 28 May 2021 (image credit: SKA)
- France first became officially involved in the SKA Project in 2018 through the ‘Maison SKA-France’ consortium [15)], composed of universities, research organizations and industry and led by the French national research agency CNRS, Europe’s largest research organization. The public-private collaboration played a key role in further positioning the SKA project within industrial, scientific, and political spheres in France and as a result, the project was placed on the French Roadmap for Research Infrastructures.
- The French Ministry in charge of research, which will provide a substantial financial contribution to SKAO, has been very active in coordinating the preparation of France’s membership, in conjunction with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the SKAO, the SKAO Council, CNRS and the Maison SKA-France consortium.
- In February, on the occasion of the founding of the SKA Observatory, the French government announced its intention to seek membership of the SKAO. Prof. Antoine Petit, Chairman and CEO of the CNRS said at the time: “I welcome France’s decision to become a member of SKAO and tackle a multitude of challenges: challenges both in astronomy and in the digital and technological worlds that will see academic and industrial researchers working together. The CNRS has strongly supported the idea of joining SKA, being motivated by these challenges, with the support of the partners of Maison SKA-France whom I thank and who, like all our researchers, are extremely enthusiastic about the scientific opportunities this brings.”
- France took part in five of the 11 international engineering consortia designing the SKAO telescopes, including contributions for the SKA dishes, low-frequency antennas, receivers and signal processing.
- French scientific interest in the SKA Project has greatly increased in recent years, with French participation in the international SKA preparatory science meetings growing significantly. The SKA France white paper, published in 2017, involved 178 authors from 40 institutes and six private companies.
- Building on this work, it is expected that hundreds of researchers in France will directly benefit from the operation of the SKA telescopes in areas such as astrophysics, cosmology, and fundamental physics. Beyond astronomy, in the digital and technological sectors, there is great potential for important spinoffs and contributions to society, particularly in the areas of data processing and telecommunications.
- “This great news reflects the strong momentum behind the SKA Observatory following its launch in February, and I warmly welcome France,” said Dr Catherine Cesarsky, SKAO Council Chair. “I know well the enthusiasm of French astronomers for this project and it is especially positive to see new members joining from beyond the group of countries involved in the SKAO Convention negotiations. This is a testament to how valuable SKAO’s contributions will be not only in science and engineering, but also its much wider impact on society through education and training, and innovations which will find their way to everyday life.”
• February 4, 2021: SKAO Global Headquarters, Jodrell Bank, UK -The SKA Observatory, a new intergovernmental organisation dedicated to radio astronomy, was launched today following the first meeting of the Observatory’s Council. 16)
- The new Observatory, known as SKAO, is the world’s second intergovernmental organisation to be dedicated to astronomy. Headquartered in the UK on the grounds of the Jodrell Bank UNESCO World Heritage Site with sites in Australia and South Africa, SKAO is tasked with building and operating the two largest and most complex radio telescope networks ever conceived to address fundamental questions about our universe.
Figure 11: Nighttime composite image of the SKA combining all elements in South Africa and Australia. Credit: SKAO, ICRAR, SARAO / Acknowledgment: The GLEAM view of the center of the Milky Way, in radio color [image credit: Natasha Hurley-Walker (Curtin / ICRAR) and the GLEAM Team]
Figure 12: “This is a historic moment for radio astronomy,” said Dr Catherine Cesarsky, appointed first Chair of the SKAO Council. “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.”(video credit: SKAO)
- SKAO’s telescope in South Africa will be composed of 197 fifteen- meter-diameter dishes located in the Karoo region, 64 of which already exist and are operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), while the telescope in Australia will be composed of 131,072 two meter-tall antennas located on the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.
- The creation of SKAO follows a decade of detailed engineering design work, scientific prioritisation, and policy development under the supervision of its predecessor the SKA Organisation, supported by more than 500 engineers, over 1,000 scientists and dozens of policy-makers in more than 20 countries; and is the result of 30 years of thinking and research and development since discussions first took place about developing a next-generation radio telescope.
Figure 13: “Today marks the birth of a new Observatory,” said Prof. Philip Diamond, appointed first Director-General of SKAO. “And not just any observatory – this is one of the mega-science facilities of the 21st century. It is the culmination of many years of work and I wish to congratulate everyone in the SKA community and in our partner governments and institutions who have worked so hard to make this happen. For our community, this is about participating in one of the great scientific adventures of the coming decades. 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.”(video credit: SKAO)
- The first SKAO Council meeting follows the signature of the SKA treaty, formally known as the Convention establishing the SKA Observatory, on 12 March 2019 in Rome, and its subsequent ratification by Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom and entry into force on 15 January 2021, marking the official birth date of the observatory.
- The Council is composed of representatives from the Observatory’s Member States, as well as Observer countries aspiring to join SKAO. Among these are countries that took part in the design phase of the SKA such as Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, and whose future accession to SKAO is expected in the coming weeks and months, once their national processes have been completed. Representatives of national bodies in Japan and South Korea complement the select list of Observers in the SKAO Council.
- At its first meeting, the SKAO Council approved policies and procedures that have been prepared in recent months – covering governance, funding, programmatic and HR matters, among others. These approvals are required to transfer staff and assets from the SKA Organisation to the Observatory and allow the latter to become a functioning entity.
- “The coming months will keep us very busy, with hopefully new countries formalising their accession to SKAO and the expected key decision of the SKAO Council giving us green light to start the construction of the telescopes,” added Prof. Diamond.
- SKAO will begin recruitment in Australia and South Africa in the next few months, working alongside local partners CSIRO and SARAO to supervise construction, which is expected to last eight years, with early science opportunities starting in the mid 2020s.
• December 16, 2020: London, United Kingdom – The UK, home to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Global Headquarters, has now ratified the Convention to establish the SKA Observatory (SKAO). This completes the process needed for the Observatory to be formally created. 17)
- SKAO is the intergovernmental organization responsible for building and operating the SKA telescopes, which together will form the world’s largest radio telescope and will enable scientists to study the universe in more detail than ever before.
- The Convention stipulates that at least five nations, including the three host countries – Australia, South Africa and the UK – must ratify the text for it to enter into force. The UK’s ratification, following that of its two fellow host countries and founding members Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal, means SKAO can now formally be established.
- The first meeting of the SKAO Council, the Observatory’s governing body representing Member States, is expected to take place in early 2021.
Figure 14: A certified copy of the SKA Observatory Convention which is held at SKAO Headquarters in the UK. The original is held at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the depository of the Convention (image credit: SKA Organisation)
SKA in the UK
- “The UK ratification is fantastic news and means SKAO can now enter into being as soon as January,” said SKA Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond. “It has been an exciting journey since the signature of the SKAO Convention in Rome in March 2019 but given the uncertainty that continues in the world around us, wrapping up the year on such a positive note and having the Observatory’s founding members solidifying their commitment to the SKA is extremely heartening.”
- The UK hosts the SKA Global Headquarters, located at the historic Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, near Manchester. The £20million SKA HQ building, inaugurated in July 2019, was co-funded by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), The University of Manchester and Cheshire East Council.
- Jodrell Bank, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019 for its contributions to radio astronomy, is the central hub of the UK’s e-MERLIN national facility. This network of seven radio telescopes spread across the UK (including the iconic 76m Lovell Telescope) together form an SKA pathfinder instrument.
- Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “The ambition of the Square Kilometer Array is one of the most important scientific endeavors of our generation that could open up unprecedented opportunities for astronomers across the world.
- “The UK is proudly home to the SKA headquarters and today’s milestone brings us one step closer to constructing these sophisticated telescopes that will enable our scientists to explore the universe in more detail than ever before – potentially expanding our knowledge of astronomy.”
- Executive Chair of STFC Professor Mark Thomson said: “The Square Kilometer Array is one of the flagship international science facilities of this generation and I am delighted that the UK’s ratification of the Treaty means work towards the construction of this vast telescope array can proceed rapidly. This is an extremely important and exciting moment for astronomy.
- “The SKA will help us to probe some of the fundamental questions about the origins of the Universe and, with this confirmation of UK government support, it is now down to the hard work of scientists in the UK and around to globe to provide vital technology and expertise to bring SKA to life.”
SKA on the ground
- Scientists based at UK institutions make up 15% of members within the SKA’s Science Working Groups and Focus Groups and were the largest contributors of the SKA Science Book that was published in 2015.
- The UK has also, supported by STFC, led the design and delivery of key elements of the SKA during the pre-construction phase of the telescopes through its university partners at the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester and Oxford, UK industry and STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and UK Astronomy Technology Centre.
- This included leading the SKA’s international Science Data Processor and Signal and Data Transport engineering design consortia. UK institutions were also heavily involved in the SKA’s Telescope Manager software element and in the design process for the SKA’s low-frequency antennas.
About the SKA
- The SKA project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope. The SKA is not a single telescope, but a collection of telescopes, called an array, to be spread over long distances. It will be constructed in Australia and South Africa with a later expansion in both countries and into other African countries.
- The design has been led by the SKA Organisation based near Manchester, UK and supported by more than 1,000 engineers and scientists in 20 countries. The SKA Organisation is transitioning to the SKA Observatory, an intergovernmental organisation established by treaty, to undertake the construction and operation of the telescope. Learn more about the transition to the SKA Observatory here.
- The SKA will conduct transformational science and help to address fundamental gaps in our understanding of the Universe including the formation and evolution of galaxies, fundamental physics in extreme environments and the origins of life in the Universe.
• December 11, 2020: Following a recent approval by its national Parliament, Portugal has ratified the Convention establishing the Square Kilometer Array Observatory (SKAO). The Convention was signed by seven countries, including Portugal, in Rome on 12 March 2019, a critical milestone that triggered a legislative ratification process in each country. 18)
- Portugal joins the Netherlands, Italy, South Africa and Australia as founding members of SKAO, the intergovernmental organisation tasked with building and operating the world’s largest radio telescopes, namely the SKA telescopes, to be located in South Africa and Australia. SKAO will come into being once the remaining host country, the UK, home of the SKAO Global Headquarters, has completed their ratification process. This is expected to happen before year’s end, opening the door for the first governing SKAO Council meeting to be held in January 2021.
- Portuguese involvement in SKAO will be managed by the Portuguese Space Agency, Portugal Space, acting on behalf of the Portuguese government to promote the country on the international Space scene and strengthen their collaboration on the world stage.
- ENGAGE SKA (Enabling Green E-Science for the Square Kilometer Array), a national radio astronomy research infrastructure backed by the Portuguese National Roadmap for Research Infrastructures, developed a strategy to ensure a strong Portuguese involvement in the SKA project, fostering the inclusion of Portuguese scientists, engineers and industry in the SKA’s design and scientific research. ENGAGE SKA built a broad partnership bringing together universities and industry within the SKA design consortia.
- “Portugal’s participation in the SKA program and the fact that Portugal is a founding member of the SKA Observatory opens new opportunities for young people, researchers, astronomy professionals and amateurs in Portugal to be involved in one of the most revolutionary scientific cooperation initiatives at a global level, which will make it possible to make high-resolution astronomy using any of our computers or portable cell phones,” says Manuel Heitor, Portuguese Minister of Science, Technology and Education. “This program finally democratizes access to astronomy and to the knowledge of the universe, stimulating the curiosity and scientific creativity of young people and adults, as well as opening new paths to investigate to deepen the knowledge about the creation of life and the fundamental principles of the evolution of the Universe.”
- “I am very pleased to welcome Portugal as one of the founding members of SKAO,” said Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond. “Europe has a strong radio astronomy base and so it is great to see more European involvement in SKA. Portugal becomes the third European country to ratify the SKA convention with more on the path to membership. Portugal’s expertise in the areas of green computing and data handling are particularly welcome.”
- ENGAGE SKA has contributed with several key computing infrastructures, now part of the Portuguese Advanced Computing Network. This includes the 239 TFLOPS supercomputer, Oblivion@SKA inaugurated in February 2020, and the Centre of Competence for Advanced Computing at the University of Aveiro (CCACUA), inaugurated in November 2020. These facilities are designed to support the wider Portuguese scientific community, and a large share of their compute time will be open to society for studies as diverse as fire monitoring, precision agriculture, green energy, smart factories or the COVID-19 pandemic, in a prime example of radio astronomy’s wider impact in society and in addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. ENGAGE SKA and CCACUA played a key role in the SKA software development to date, and in partnership with UCLCA-Coimbra will play a vital part in the SKA’s second Science Data Challenge which is about to start, as one of the high-performance computing centers that will store simulated SKA data for astronomers to access.
- “Portugal is taking a big step forward in the strategy for astronomical science to not only provide the scientific community with greater opportunities for the development of science, but also for an entire industrial sector that opens up new business and technology development opportunities”, says Ricardo Conde, Portugal Space President. “Together with the Portuguese participation in other international organisations, this is an opportunity to look forward to increasing the Portuguese scientific community and to attract young students for these domains of science. Being part of SKAO, the Portuguese Space Agency is committed to explore new opportunities within an international frame collaboration.”
• October 7, 2020: The SKA Organization (SKAO) – which leads the delivery of the international Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project – has undertaken a preliminary analysis of the potential impact of current satellite mega-constellations on its telescopes. The analysis quantifies this impact and identifies possible mitigations. The SKA project is an intergovernmental collaboration between 15 countries involving thousands of scientists and engineers to build and operate the world’s largest radio observatory, with two telescopes located in Australia and South Africa. 19)
The study focuses on the impact of the deployment of the principal currently planned space-based systems, totalling 6,400 satellites, on the SKA-Mid telescope soon to be erected in South Africa, which will consist of an array of 197 dishes.
Note 1: A potential impact on the SKAO telescope in Australia, operating in the 50 MHz-350 MHz frequency range, exists due to signals transmitted from the ground bouncing off satellites and being detected by the SKAO antennas. A full impact assessment of this interference is planned.
SKAO’s low-frequency telescope in Western Australia, which uses a different antenna technology and will operate at lower frequencies, is not the subject of the analysis reported here.
Key points and findings (based on deployment of 6,400 satellites)
- The satellites in the various constellation projects will transmit signals within the frequency range covered by the Band 5b receivers of the SKA-Mid telescope in South Africa (one of seven bands planned for the telescope).
- Without specific mitigation actions by the constellation operators, there is likely to be an impact on all astronomical observations in Band 5b.
- This impact includes a loss of sensitivity in the frequency range used by the constellations, leading to astronomical observations in that range taking 70% longer.
- The science impact is most significant for studies of molecular and atomic spectral lines in that range, including complex organic molecules; Class II methanol masers; and a wide range of extragalactic molecular lines.
- Viable mitigation techniques identified by SKAO can reduce this impact on SKA-Mid by a factor of 10, if implemented by relevant satellite operators.
- SKAO remains committed to minimizing the loss of scientific discovery through all available avenues. SKAO will continue to work closely with industry on ways to minimize the damage caused by mega-constellation transmissions and is looking forward to a positive response on these proposed solutions.
- For significantly larger constellations, of up to 100,000 satellites, the effect on the SKA would be much worse, potentially threatening the viability of the complete Band 5b for 100% of the time, unless stringent mitigation actions are put in place.
Use of the radio frequency spectrum
Due to their exquisite sensitivity, the two SKAO telescopes will be built in remote locations far away from artificial radio frequency interference. These locations enjoy legal protections, declared as national Radio Quiet Zones (RQZ), which protect them from ground-generated radio signals, such as mobile phones, broadcasting transmitters or Wi-Fi to name a few examples. However, the RQZ status provides no protection against interference from space-borne transmitters.
Radio transmissions from satellite constellations use a frequency range which has been in use by the satellite industry for many years. It sits within the range of frequency observed by the SKA-Mid’s band 5b receivers, and is immediately adjacent to an internationally protected radio astronomy band (Note 2). However, radio astronomy has been able to conduct observations in all these frequency ranges due to the small number of (visible) satellites and their fixed position in the sky (most of them in geostationary orbit). The deployment of thousands of satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) will inevitably change the situation as astronomers now face a much larger number of fast-moving radio sources in the sky (Note 3).
Note 2: The International
Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, through its
Radiocommunication sector regulates the international use of the radio
spectrum and satellite orbits. Radio astronomy was first officially
recognized as a radiocommunication service in 1959, when it was agreed
to protect certain narrow bands for radio astronomy observations.
Satellite manufacturers are bound by international agreements under the
ITU, which guarantee radio astronomy protected bands, including that at
10.6-10.7 GHz, are not affected by their transmissions if strict
control is exercised over the spill over from one band to another
– a perennial problem with other satellite operators.
Note 3: Recent filings to the FCC have revealed operators’ plans to increase the mega-constellation size to tens of thousands of satellites. This dramatic increase in numbers would mean that, if left unmitigated, the effect of these constellations on the SKA would be much worse than predicted above, potentially threatening the viability of the complete Band 5b for 100% of the time. This would require further action and more stringent mitigation in order to protect the SKA. Filing with the FCC allows operators to service the US market and is a useful collecting point for information on Industry’s intentions for satellite constellations. The telecoms regulators of home countries of the major proposers, currently UK, Canada, France, Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and China will also have a role to play in promoting such mitigations.
Figure 15: Frequency coverage of the SKAO telescopes with a zoom on SKA-Mid Band 5B, protected radio astronomy band and satellite downlink (image credit: SKAO)
Impact on SKA
Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX (which is currently deploying the Starlink mega-constellation), said recently in a public statement that: “... Starlink won’t be seen by anyone unless looking very carefully and will have ~0% impact on advancements in astronomy.”
The SKAO study shows that, for radio telescopes in general and for SKA in particular, this is not the case and specific mitigation actions will be needed to minimize this impact.
SKAO’s analysis focused on three issues:
1) Physical damage: our study ruled out concerns about physical damage to the Band 5b receivers through intense radio signals from the satellites directly illuminating the dishes.
2) Saturation of the instruments: very strong interfering signals can saturate the receiver systems and thereby drown out all other signals seen by the Band 5b receivers. As a consequence, all data in that frequency band would be lost, rendering these receivers useless for a portion of the time. For the first phase of the constellation deployments (about 6,400 satellites in total), saturation is predicted to occur for a few percent of the time assuming there is no direct illumination of the dishes by the satellites. For significantly larger constellation sizes (up to more than 100,000 satellites), saturation would be essentially continuous without significant mitigation measures implemented by the satellite operators.
3) Scientific impact: our study demonstrated even with the current smaller constellation sizes (of 6,400 satellites), there is likely to be a continuous loss of sensitivity impacting all astronomical observations in Band 5b within the frequency range of the satellite’s transmissions unless mitigating actions are implemented. The science impact of this will be most significant for studies of molecular and atomic spectral lines in that range. This includes studies of complex organic molecules; Class II methanol masers; and a wide range of extragalactic molecular lines.
“There is tremendous scientific and public interest in identifying the origins of life beyond that found on Earth and one of the most promising methods of tracking it down elsewhere in our Galaxy is the detection of complex pre-biotic molecules, whose spectral signatures are concentrated between about 10 and 15 GHz,” says Dr Robert Braun, SKA Science Director. “This is only one of many exciting science goals that depend on sensitive access to this frequency range. The prospect of losing sensitivity in this key frequency band is extremely worrying.”
A direct impact of the lost sensitivity will be a 70% increase in the required integration time – the amount of time astronomers need to look at a particular object in order to observe it clearly – in the satellite transmission range. In other words, each observation in that range will require 70% more time, and therefore only approximately half as many observations can be carried out overall.
“A loss of observing efficiency on top of the expected large oversubscription on the telescope will translate directly into lost science and it is quite possible that the most challenging experiments that might otherwise have been undertaken will no longer be viable at all in these circumstances,” confirms Dr Braun.
Possible mitigation measures
To ensure that the impact of the current and planned satellite constellations is minimized, the SKAO telescope in South Africa has to be actively protected by lowering the power of satellites’ transmissions received at the site. SKAO believes there are different mitigation techniques that can make this possible, depending on the technology of the communications payloads of the satellites.
One of these mitigation techniques is for the satellite transmitters not to point their beams near the SKAO dishes. SKAO would require operators to steer their satellites’ beams away from the telescope site, a measure which would require a simple software modification with no repercussion on the constellation’s deployment, positioning or hardware. While a cost-effective implementation of this solution does depend on the hardware and software deployed on the satellites, operators already use this technique to comply with international regulations when their satellites cross the path between geostationary satellites in higher orbit and their receiving ground stations, for example to avoid affecting telecommunications and TV transmissions.
This mitigation could reduce the impact on the SKA by a factor of 10 over that noted previously and result in a 7% increase of integration time for SKA observations within the satellite transmission range (Note 4). While any loss of sensitivity is regrettable, SKAO recognizes the need for compromise between the competing scientific and commercial drivers.
Note 4: In addition to identifying this mitigation solution, SKAO has gone further and modelled this solution for a constellation serving population centers surrounding the SKAO site in South Africa. SKAO determined that the satellite beams would need to be steered by a minimum of 20 degrees away from the site to be effective. As the SKAO model has some uncertainty around it, since we don’t have full access to all the technical information and tools, SKAO encourages satellite operators who own the necessary data to develop a precise model, so that the impact can be better understood, both on the telescope and on potential accessibility issues for those populations.
It is worth noting that the commercial incentive for operators to point their satellite beams towards the South African SKA site is already significantly limited, with the national Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act of Parliament regulating the licensing and roll out of the necessary ground-based infrastructure for satellite operators to service users in the area around the South African SKA site.
“Thanks to our modelling work, the potential impact of satellite mega-constellations on the SKA is now understood,” says Prof. Philip Diamond, SKA Director-General. “We are building a multi-billion euro state-of-the-art research facility funded by taxpayers around the world, and we need to protect and maximize its ability to deliver innovation and new knowledge for humanity.”
Prof. Diamond adds: “In an effort to be constructive and offer solutions to industry, we have also identified viable mitigation options and modelled them. I’m reassured by Elon Musk’s public statements assuring us that there would be no impact on astronomy and welcome the constructive engagement we’ve had with industry so far. We look forward to satellite operators’ proactive engagement with the solutions we propose here today to safeguard the SKA’s Member States taxpayer investments in the SKA.”
Figure 16: The Karoo Astronomy Advantage Area (KAAA) was established as part of the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act 2007. Consisting of a polygonal area of ~500 km x 300 km at extents, this Radio Quiet Zone provides radio protection to the South African site of the SKA-Mid telescope (image credit: SKAO)
• September 29, 2020: Australia, the future home of the SKA’s low-frequency telescope, has ratified the Convention Establishing the SKA Observatory. 20)
- Australia is the fourth country to complete its national process of ratification, joining the Netherlands, Italy and fellow SKA telescope host country South Africa.
- The Convention, signed by seven countries in Rome on 12 March 2019, establishes the SKA Observatory – the intergovernmental organization responsible for building and operating the SKA telescopes. It enters into force once five countries, including the three hosts Australia, South Africa and the UK, ratify the text. With the UK expected to complete its ratification in the coming weeks, it is hoped the SKA Observatory will come into being before the end of the year.
- “I am delighted that Australia has ratified the SKA Observatory Convention,” said SKA Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond. “Australia’s commitment to the SKA has been steadfast since the early days of the project. We are now in the very strong position to push forward with both our telescope host countries having completed the ratification process.”
- The country is home to two SKA precursor telescopes located on site at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia: CSIRO’s 36-dish Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), an international collaboration involving 21 institutions. These facilities are carrying out world-class research and providing invaluable science and technology insights for the development of the SKA.
- Australian Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, the Hon Karen Andrews MP, announced the ratification, saying that the SKA project is a “great example of how science and technology can drive industry forward, to grow our economy and create the jobs of tomorrow”.
- Australia has a long history of leading in radio astronomy. As well as ASKAP and MWA, it is also home to the iconic Parkes telescope, an SKA pathfinder and second largest steerable radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. Scientists based at Australian institutions are active in all 14 of the SKA’s Science Working Groups and Focus Groups, and Australian institutions are deeply involved in technology development, in particular instrumentation, data processing and high-performance computing.
- Prof. Diamond adds. “The continued progress of the SKA Project this year reflects the firm support of governments for fundamental research even in the face of a pandemic. This commitment has not only borne fruit in the fight against COVID-19 but will also be key to supporting the economic recovery of our member states as they emerge from this crisis.”
• June 2, 2020: South Africa, the future home of the SKA’s mid-frequency telescope, has ratified the Convention Establishing the SKA Observatory after the South African Parliament approved the Convention and Dr Naledi Pandor, Minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, signed the Instrument of Ratification. 21)
- It is the third country after the Netherlands and Italy to complete its national process supporting the establishment of the SKA Observatory; the intergovernmental organisation responsible for building and operating the SKA telescopes, and the first of the SKA’s three host countries to do so.
Figure 17: Close up of the certified copy of the SKA Observatory Convention kept in the Council Chamber of SKA Global Headquarters (image credit: SKA Organisation)
- South Africa was among the seven countries that signed the Convention in Rome on 12 March 2019, alongside Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom. The Convention will enter into force once five countries, including the three hosts Australia, South Africa and the UK, ratify the text.
- “This is a significant moment not only because South Africa is the first of our hosts to ratify the Convention, but with multiple countries having done so, we are now closer to the SKA Observatory formally existing,” said SKA Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond.
- The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) has been leading the country’s participation in the SKA on behalf of the Department of Science and Innovation.
- South Africa is already home to two precursor telescopes: the 64-dish MeerKAT array which will ultimately form part of the SKA’s mid-frequency telescope, and the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionisation Array (HERA), which is under construction. As well as conducting world-class research, MeerKAT is also providing vital input for SKA design work and science planning.
- “Ratification is a critical milestone for the SKA project. I would like to thank both Houses of Parliament as well as the Department of Science and Innovation for supporting our country’s participation in this iconic global science infrastructure project,” said Rob Adam, Managing Director of SARAO.
- South Africa’s radio astronomy and related engineering expertise has evolved rapidly in the past two decades, and the contribution of South African institutes and industry in the detailed design work of the SKA has been invaluable. Recently, stunning early images from MeerKAT – currently the world’s most powerful radio telescope in its category – have cemented the country’s position in the premier league of radio astronomy. Scientists at South African institutions are also active in 10 of the SKA’s Science Working Groups and Focus Groups.
- “South Africa’s ratification of the Convention confirms South Africa’s strong commitment to the global SKA partnership. We are determined to ensure the success of what will be the first ever large global research infrastructure hosted in Africa,” said Dr Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation. “South Africa’s participation in the SKA project has significantly strengthened South Africa’s data science capabilities, precious resource in the fight against COVID-19. More than ever our world needs international cooperation and solidarity in science such as enabled by projects such as the SKA.”
- “Even with the terrible toll of this novel coronavirus around the world, countries have shown remarkable commitment to the SKA and continue to push forward. It is testimony to the strength of our global collaboration and the impact the project will have,” added Prof. Diamond. “Momentum is strong, and we expect Australia, China, Portugal and the UK to ratify in the coming months, with other countries joining the Observatory in due course. Once the SKA Observatory is up and running, construction of the largest science facility on the planet will begin in earnest.”
• May 4, 2020: Construction of the giant Square Kilometer Array (SKA) is likely to be delayed by several months, with COVID-19 lockdown measures making some tests of prototype equipment impossible, and parliaments slower to ratify the intergovernmental convention governing the building and operation of the radio telescope. 22)
- Nine years after it was agreed SKA would be split between sites in South Africa and Australia, building the telescope was due to start in January 2021. But last week Philip Diamond, director general of the SKA Organisation, said COVID-19 enforced delays mean the project is now aiming for, “commencement of SKA1 construction activities as early in 2021 as possible.”
- Diamond hopes the delay will be minimal. “If it’s two or three months, we’ll count that as a success,” he said. SKA’s headquarters at Manchester University’s Jodrell Bank Observatory where Diamond is based, have now been shut down for more than six weeks. In an update last week, he said, “It is my expectation that the shutdown will continue for some weeks yet.”
- A few months looks like marginal in terms of the time frame for the project, with SKA not due to be fully operational until 2030. Once complete, the telescope will have the capacity to look back in time to the first billion years of the universe and the formation of the first stars and galaxies.
- That will be achieved by combining data from a collection of large antennas spread across remote areas of South Africa and Australia. The €1.8 billion international project also involves Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, China, Canada and India, amongst other countries.
• April 28, 2020: I hope that all of you and your families are safe and healthy in this crisis that has gripped the world. It is heartening to see the way that our fellow citizens across the globe have risen to the challenges imposed by the pandemic, especially the way in which the world’s health professionals have stepped up, often at risk to themselves. I salute them all. 23)
- It is now nearly six weeks since the SKA HQ building was shut down as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. It is my expectation that the shutdown will continue for some weeks yet. Within the senior leadership of the SKA Organisation we are planning the eventual return to the office but will be following the advice of the UK government in making any decisions. Any and all decisions on a physical return will be taken ensuring the health and well-being of our staff and their families above all else.
- Thanks to some careful planning, an efficient IT team, robust technology and a digitally-savvy workforce, SKA staff have managed to rapidly settle into the new working environments and establish new working practices. As I am sure is the case all over the world, this has not come without issues, as our colleagues cope with families at home and isolation for those who live alone. We have had, for many years, a flexible work culture and this has come to the fore during the past few weeks. Our Human Resources team have been in contact with all lone workers to ensure they are managing, and we have set up systems whereby they can meet and socialise with their colleagues via videoconferencing.
- Some of our staff returned to their home countries prior to the shutdown to be with their families; they continue to work remotely, and we will work with them to plan their eventual return to SKA HQ.
- In the weeks since the lockdown commenced, we have had 7 new starters at SKAO. All have been inducted remotely and are fully incorporated in all SKA activities within their new teams. We look forward to the time when we can meet them in person and welcome them with a NAMASTE, the replacement for a handshake.
Figure 18: Public statement on the status of the SKA project (Philip Diamond, SKA Director-General)
- On the project side, we continue to progress well. We have had several positive milestones over the last four weeks and have been maintaining the strong momentum that was evident across all aspects of the project before the pandemic hit. Those key milestones are:
1) The System Critical Design Review, the meeting for which took place in December last year, was completed in early April, with all actions closed off except those few which, with the full agreement of the panel, require continued technical investigation of prototype systems. This has been a huge effort by all involved, both within the office and across our global partnership.
2) The external review of the SKA Operations Plan took place by video on 23-25 March; the panel’s very positive report was received shortly thereafter. We have accepted and are implementing all of their recommendations. There are no major issues, but some wise advice was provided in areas of budgetary contingency, lean staff levels in one or two areas, the complexity of managing an operation across three continents and the relationships with the proposed SKA Regional Centres.
3) The Cost Audit of the SKA1 construction plans was completed a week or so ago. This was conducted by Arup, a global engineering company. Again, the report was very positive with a range of extremely useful recommendations. These mainly focused on issues of detailed process and did not turn up any major concerns with regard to the cost estimates or the contingency estimation process.
4) On Monday 20th April, EPFL (the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) joined the SKA Organisation, representing Switzerland; they are SKA’s 14th Our Swiss colleagues have, over the past 4 years, become increasingly engaged in SKA activities and we welcome them into the project.
5) On 21st April, we were pleased to hear that the legislation to progress the UK’s ratification of the SKA Observatory Convention was laid before the UK Parliament; this will now progress through the UK processes over the coming weeks.
- In addition to supporting these milestones, the SKAO staff are focusing on several areas, namely: developing the draft Construction Proposal, which will be ready for internal review shortly; further development of the procurement strategy; updating the Operations Plan and developing the broader 10-year plan for the Establishment and Delivery of the Observatory; engaging in the newly-established SRC working groups; drafting the business plan for 2021; preparing for the review of business-enabling functions; working on several different aspects related to the transition from the SKA Organisation to the SKA Observatory; working on the second Data Challenge; drafting the next version of Contact, developing the thinking around the future SKA Observatory brand and much more.
- I also would like to say that I am impressed at how the SKA community around the world has stepped up to assist during the COVID-19 crisis; from our colleagues in South Africa taking the lead on provision of ventilators at their government’s request; to work on contact tracing apps in Australia; supporting super-computing work on the virus and vaccines in many partners; and the provision of online educational resources by colleagues in India, Italy, the UK and elsewhere. I’m sure there are many more examples. These actions demonstrate the skillsets and experience such teams can bring to the table to assist at these critical times.
- As we look to the future, we are, with the full support of the Board and the SKA Observatory Council Preparatory Task Force (CPTF), the body preparing for the new governance structure under the treaty, planning for the establishment of the Observatory later this year and for the commencement of SKA1 construction activities as early in 2021 as possible. As is natural, we are undertaking planning for a range of possible scenarios with the intent of being able to respond appropriately and rapidly as the world emerges from this crisis. None of us can predict what the coming months will bring but, as one of the world’s major scientific endeavours, we hope to push forwards bringing employment, innovation and scientific exploration to benefit our partner countries.
• April 20, 2020: The Swiss science and technology university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has become the 14th member of the SKA Organisation (SKAO) following a unanimous decision by the SKA Board of Directors. 24)
- EPFL will be the lead institution coordinating involvement in the SKA on behalf of the Swiss academic community. Note: The Swiss Academic Community includes Universities of Geneva, Zurich, Bern, ETHZ, CSCS, FHNW, HES-SO, and Verkehrshaus Lucern.
- “I am delighted to welcome EPFL to the SKA Organisation as our newest member,” said Chair of the SKA Board of Directors Dr Catherine Cesarsky. “This renowned research institution and its partners have brought valuable expertise to the SKA, and we look forward to working ever more closely with our Swiss colleagues as we enter this exciting phase of the project, completing the very last steps before construction.”
- At a national level, Switzerland has held observer status within the Organisation since 2016, with many Swiss research institutions and many industry partners contributing to various aspects of the SKA. The country has a history of world-class research and development in science and astronomy, including leading the recent CHEOPS mission to study exoplanets, developing world-leading instrumentation for the ESO telescopes in Chile, and being one of the hosts of the major international particle physics infrastructure CERN.
- Scientists at Swiss institutions are active in eight of the SKA’s science working groups, including those focusing on galaxy evolution, cosmology and cosmic magnetism.
- “This new high-performance radio telescope will open a new view of the whole Universe,” said Prof. Jean-Paul Kneib of EPFL, who is leading the consortium of Swiss scientists interested in the SKA. “SKA will allow us to address some key questions on our Universe, such as the nature of the dark matter and the dark energy, or explore the Cosmic Dawn, the period of time when the first stars and first galaxies formed.”
- The white paper Swiss Interests and Contribution to the SKA, published in February 2020, outlines the extensive Swiss involvement in SKA-related science and technology, and highlights national interest in contributing research and development in the fields of distributed radio frequency systems, high performance computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence. It also notes Swiss industry expertise in data processing, system control and supervision, antennas and radio receivers and precise time management through the use of maser atomic clocks.
- Annual Swiss SKA Days are now in their fifth year, bringing together national and international representatives of academia, industry and government, showcasing the breadth of opportunities for Swiss institutions and companies to be involved in the SKA. The location rotates each year to reflect the various contributions of different Swiss institutions. The next Swiss SKA day is due to be held at the University of Zürich later this year.
- EPFL is now a member of the SKAO, which has been responsible for overseeing the telescope design phase, until the process of transitioning into the SKA Observatory is completed. The Observatory is due to come into being in 2020. Switzerland’s Federal Council recently triggered the first political debate in parliament regarding the possible participation of Switzerland as a member state in the future.
- “As the dream of building SKA is about to become a reality, the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI), welcomes and supports the EPFL decision to join the SKA Organisation as a special member. The accession of the EPFL will benefit to the Swiss scientific community as a whole and will open business perspectives to Swiss companies,” said Xavier Reymond, Deputy Director General for International Research Organisations at SERI, who is in charge of the relationship between Switzerland and SKAO.
- “Switzerland is the proud Seat of CERN and a dedicated member of the European Southern Observatory and of the European Space Agency. Therefore, we all look forward to assessing the opportunity to complement these intergovernmental endeavors with the upcoming SKA Observatory, which shares the same dedication to better understanding the Universe.”
- SKA Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond also welcomed EPFL to the SKAO, noting the importance of the country’s involvement so far. “Swiss institutions have been a vital part of the SKA’s design phase and bring with them a well-deserved reputation for excellence in science and astronomy, as well as being involved with some of today’s most exciting projects,” he said. “As we move ever closer to SKA construction, EPFL’s membership serves to highlight the broad range of expertise that the SKA can count upon in this next phase.”
Figure 19: The main EPFL campus in Lausanne sits on the shores of Lake Geneva (photo credit: Mediacom EPFL; CC BY-SA 4.0)
• April 9, 2020: The South African Department of Trade, Industry and Competition has tasked SARAO (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory) with managing the national effort required for the local design, development, production and procurement of respiratory ventilators to support the government’s response to combat the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. 25)
- SARAO has been mandated to manage the National Ventilator Project based on the experience it gained in the development of complex systems for the MeerKAT radio telescope, an SKA precursor facility.
- “We are happy and proud to lend our expertise developed in the context of MeerKAT and the SKA to fight this global pandemic and protect our country” said Dr. Rob Adam, Managing Director of SARAO.
- The South African government has called on companies and experts, particularly engineers and scientists, to come with innovative solutions to help combat the pandemic. In an effort to meet the anticipated demand for critical medical equipment such as ventilators, the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition is inviting companies and experts to express their interest in the design, development, production and procurement of ventilators in South Africa.
• February 5, 2020: Italy has become the second country to ratify the SKAO (SKA Observatory) Convention, the treaty which establishes the intergovernmental organization that will build and operate the SKA telescopes. 26)
- On Thursday 30th January, the Italian Senate passed the law that authorizes the President to ratify the Convention. In the text, Italy announced a financial commitment of 120 million euros over 10 years for the project.
- Italy led the multilateral negotiations on the text of the Convention, which was signed in Rome last year by seven countries: Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The Convention will enter into force once five signatories, including the three hosts Australia, South Africa and the UK, have ratified the text. Italy becomes the second country to do so after The Netherlands last August.
- Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) has been coordinating Italian participation in the SKA.
- “INAF has been part of the project from its foundation with an indisputable contribution in terms of science, technological development and industrial participation,” says INAF President Nichi D’Amico. “Now the internal R&D activities within INAF are of fundamental importance, necessary to capitalize the return for the country of the government’s contribution to the Organization in terms of science, industry and development of innovative technologies.”
- Italian institutions and industry have been instrumental in the design phase of the SKA, particularly in prototyping work for the SKA’s low-frequency antennas. INAF is involved in a number of world-class radio astronomy facilities, including operating the 64m Sardinia Radio Telescope (SRT) and hosting one of the international LOFAR telescope stations. Italian researchers are involved in all 13 of the SKA’s Science Working Groups.
- “We’re seeing great momentum towards construction with the recent completion of our system engineering review and now the Italian ratification. It’s a great step towards establishing the SKA Observatory in the coming months” said SKA Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond.
• December 19, 2019: An independent panel of external reviewers from major astronomy projects has given the SKA’s overall design, costing & planning the nod, clearing the way for the preparation of the SKA construction proposal. 27)
- After six years of work involving hundreds of engineers and scientists in 20 countries and close to 300 institutions around the world, the SKA’s overall system design – how all parts of the SKA work and interact with one another -, costing & planning has been endorsed by a panel of leading experts from ESO, NRAO, LSST, Gemini, NSF, Berkeley & Caltech universities, representing some of the biggest astronomical facilities in the world.
- “If you look at what has been achieved in the last few years it is really quite remarkable,” said Dr. Adrian Russell, Chair of the Review Panel from ESO “This year in particular there has been a huge push with [....] the design really coming to maturity. Certainly looking from the outside it is very, very impressive.”
- In November 2013, 12 international engineering consortia were created and tasked with designing the SKA. Nine of the consortia focused on the SKA’s core elements, while three others were tasked with developing advanced instrumentation. In late 2018 and 2019 consortia started going through their Critical Design Reviews (CDRs), during which the proposed design for each of these elements had to meet the project’s tough engineering requirements to be approved. The system review was the last major hurdle to be overcome before a construction proposal can be developed.
- “They have done a tremendous job of actually getting the consortia to the point where they are able to move forward with the actual construction,” said Dr. Alison Peck, member of the Review Panel from Gemini Observatory.
- As part of the design work, international teams have been engaged in building and testing prototypes on the SKA sites in South Africa and Australia, in order to make sure the design can cope with the harsh environment and meet the stringent radio frequency interference requirements on site. That work is ongoing as teams refine the design of the antennas based on lessons learned in the field.
- ‘The team has really been outstanding and I speak not only of the team here at the HQ but also the broader team from our member institutions,” said Dr. Joe McMullin, Program Director and Deputy Director-General of the SKA. “Having this milestone is really the foundation for everything in 2020. This is the year where we have to pull together the construction proposal itself.”
- Teams will now engage in final preparations ahead of construction, addressing recommendations from the panel. as the new intergovernmental organization that will oversee the procurement, construction and operation of the SKA starts operating.
- “We’ve gotten our wish. We get to continue to move forward on the project and it is fantastically exciting to see this observatory beginning to come together,” concluded Dr. McMullin.
Figure 20: SKA overview at CDR (Critical Design Review) — Exploring the universe with the world's largest radio telescope (video credit: SKA)
Figure 21: The SKA (Square Kilometer Array)
• On July 10, 2019, more than 200 guests had the pleasure to attend the ceremony for the official opening of the SKA Global Headquarters (HQs), located on the grounds of the historic Jodrell Bank Observatory and funded by the UK Government, Cheshire East Council and The University of Manchester. 28)
- Very nicely, the ceremony happened three days after the announcement of Jodrell Bank Observatory becoming one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The SKA Board members were invited to the event and had also the privilege to participate to a dedication ceremony, held in honor of the former SKA Board Chair (Prof. G. Bignami, 1944-2017), during which his widow (Dr. P. Caravero) named the SKA HQs auditorium “The Giovanni Fabrizio Bignami Council Chamber”.
- After the early July announcement of New Zealand winding down its involvement in the SKA by the end of 2020, on July 11, 2019, the SKAO Board members had the pleasure to note that Spain’s Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities applied to upgrade from Associate Member to Special Member of SKA Organization, this status providing to Spain a greater access to the Company’s decision-making processes.
- In addition to the usual updates on progresses related to governance, science, engineering, operation and procurement matters, a review of the SKA Brand was presented by W. Garnier (Director of Communications Outreach and Education). The Board discussions saw also a policy session, including a report on the outcomes of recent CPTF meetings by the Council Chair (P. Kelly); the SKA Organization Board was informed that the SKA Observatory Convention is likely to enter into force by mid-2020. In the same session, progresses to develop a partnership model for operations of SKA-Mid in South Africa and SKA-Low in Australia, as well plans for the transition between the SKA Organization and the SKA Observatory, were presented by S. Berry (Director of Strategy) and T. Devaney (Head of Business Development and Change), respectively.
- Quick progresses are on-going on all sides of the project. P. Diamond (SKAO DG) reported that, from the human resources point of view, 34 new roles have been advertised in the last year, attracting nearly one thousand candidates. The full implementation of a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) has started and will need to take place in the next 18 months, before the establishment of the SKA Observatory. To be recalled that new jobs are regularly updated at the SKAO Recruitment Portal. Prof. Diamond also informed the Board that the SKAO is fully engaged in initiatives lead by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in order to ensure that new generations of constellations of low Earth orbit satellites will not compromise future SKA scientific results.
- R. Braun (SKA Science Director) gave an overview of recent activities of his team, with particular emphasis on the good participation of the community to the last SKA Science meeting and on the publication of the results of the First Science Data Challenge. This was the first of a series of challenges and was intended to test source finding and classification tools on nine different images, sampling three different frequencies - 0.56, 1.4 and 9.2 GHz - and three different exposure times - 8, 100 and 1000 hours.
- J. McMullin (Program Director) provided an update of the pre-construction missions, consisting in delivering a Construction Proposal and an Operations Plan. Key dates are related to the Adoption Design Review (ADR) meetings during July and very early August (which will establish the complete set of documents detailing requirements, design, interfaces and plans) and, above all, to the System Critical Design Review (CDR). The full publication of its documentation is expected by mid-October 2019, for a System CDR meeting taking place from December 9 to 12, 2019. This very tight and ambitious schedule is intended to force to have a Construction Proposal ready to be submitted to the first SKA Observatory Council meeting, in mid-June 2020. Meanwhile, element CDRs are progressing (with the SDP consortium having formally closed out actions and the AIV consortium having recently announced to have completed its planning work) and, as reported by the Interim Director of Operations (A. Chrysostomou), operation workshops were held in Cape Town and Perth between February and March 2019. Very importantly, an updated version of the SKA cost book and work breakdown structure were presented to the Board by J. McMullin, while I. Hastings (Head of Procurement Services) presented an update of the “Hybrid Procurement Model”, consisting in a flexible approach, partly allocative and partly competitive.
- A. Russell (ESO), member of the Science And Engineering Advisory Committee (SEAC), presented the recommendation coming from the last face-to-face meeting (June 24-25, 2019) of this very important SKAO body, providing comments and useful inputs on the project status, the CDR developments (with particular attention the to SKA1-LOW telescope), the operation plan, and the SKA Regional Centers (SRC) organization work.
• 09 May 2019: An international group of scientists led by the University of Cambridge has finished designing the ‘brain’ of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope. When complete, the SKA will enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and survey the entire sky much faster than any system currently in existence. 29)
- The SKA Science Data Processor (SDP) consortium has concluded its engineering design work, marking the end of five years’ work to design one of two supercomputers that will process the enormous amounts of data produced by the SKA’s telescopes.
- The SDP consortium, led by the University of Cambridge, has designed the elements that will together form the ‘brain’ of the SKA. SDP is the second stage of processing for the masses of digitized astronomical signals collected by the telescope’s receivers. In total, close to 40 institutions in 11 countries took part.
- The UK government, through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has committed £100 m to the construction of the SKA and the SKA Headquarters, as its share as a core member of the project. The global headquarters of the SKA Organization are located in the UK at Jodrell Bank, home to the iconic Lovell Telescope.
- “It’s been a real pleasure to work with such an international team of experts, from radio astronomy but also the High-Performance Computing industry,” said Maurizio Miccolis, SDP’s Project Manager for the SKA Organization. “We’ve worked with almost every SKA country to make this happen, which goes to show how hard what we’re trying to do is.”
- The role of the consortium was to design the computing hardware platforms, software, and algorithms needed to process science data from the Central Signal Processor (CSP) into science data products.
- “SDP is where data becomes information,” said Rosie Bolton, Data Center Scientist for the SKA Organization. “This is where we start making sense of the data and produce detailed astronomical images of the sky.”
- To do this, SDP will need to ingest the data and move it through data reduction pipelines at staggering speeds, to then form data packages that will be copied and distributed to a global network of regional centers where it will be accessed by scientists around the world.
- SDP itself will be composed of two supercomputers, one located in Cape Town, South Africa and one in Perth, Australia.
- “We estimate SDP’s total compute power to be around 250 PFlops – that’s 25% faster than IBM’s Summit, the current fastest supercomputer in the world,” said Maurizio. “In total, up to 600 petabytes (600 x 1015 bytes) of data will be distributed around the world every year from SDP –enough to fill more than a million average laptops.”
- Additionally, because of the sheer quantity of data flowing into SDP: some 5 Tb/s, or 100,000 times faster than the projected global average broadband speed in 2022, it will need to make decisions on its own in almost realtime about what is noise and what is worthwhile data to keep.
- The team also designed SDP so that it can detect and remove manmade RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) – for example from satellites and other sources – from the data.
- “By pushing what’s technologically feasible and developing new software and architecture for our HPC (High-Performance Computing) needs, we also create opportunities to develop applications in other fields,” said Maurizio.
- High-Performance Computing plays an increasingly vital role in enabling research in fields such as weather forecasting, climate research, drug development and many others where cutting-edge modelling and simulations are essential.
- Professor Paul Alexander, Consortium Lead from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory said: “I’d like to thank everyone involved in the consortium for their hard work over the years. Designing this supercomputer wouldn’t have been possible without such an international collaboration behind it.”
• 08 May 2019: The prestigious German research organization the Max Planck Society has become the 13th member of the SKA Organization, following a unanimous vote by the SKA Board of Directors at its recent meeting at the SKA Organization Global Headquarters in the UK. 30)
- The Max Planck Society thus joins the final phase of the SKA Organization, which is overseeing the telescope design phase, until the process of transitioning into the SKA Observatory, an intergovernmental organization established by treaty to manage the construction and operation of the SKA, is completed. Any further German engagement, through joining the SKA Observatory, remains to be decided and will be subject to future discussions.
- “I am delighted to welcome the Max Planck Society to the SKA Organization as our 13th member, a deserved recognition of the significant contributions Germany has made to the SKA project over the years, and particularly in this crucial pre-construction phase,” said Chairperson of the SKA Board of Directors Dr. Catherine Cesarsky.
- German research institutions and industry have been an intrinsic part of SKA-related projects since its earliest days, and have significant involvement in ongoing SKA design activities. In particular, the Max Planck Society provides instrumentation in the form of detectors, data acquisition and analysis systems for South Africa’s world-class MeerKAT telescope, an SKA precursor facility which will become part of SKA’s mid-frequency array (SKA-Mid).
- “I am extremely pleased to see our German colleagues consolidating their long-lasting involvement in SKA-related activities both at a scientific and industrial level”, added Prof. Philip Diamond, SKA Director-General. “Germany’s great wealth of expertise in radio astronomy, both in science and engineering, will continue to be invaluable as we move ever closer to SKA construction and operations.”
Figure 22: Together with other German industries, MT Mechatronics of Mainz has developed the prototype elevation drive for the SKA-mid dishes(image credit: MTM)
- The Max Planck Society is a non-profit organization with 84 institutes and research facilities. In collaboration with other German institutions and industry, it has been involved across many areas of SKA design work, including within the Mid Frequency Dish Array, Low Frequency Aperture Array, Central Signal Processor, Science Data Processor, Telescope Manager, Signal and Data Transport consortia, and research and development work within the Phased Array Feeds and Wideband Single Pixel Feeds consortia.
- Among the Max Planck Society’s institutes is the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) a key player in the SKA’s Dish engineering consortium. Together with German industry partners, such as the telescope antenna specialists MT Mechatronics (MTM), and international partners, the Dish consortium is responsible for designing the SKA-Mid, to be deployed in South Africa. The Dish consortium has already delivered two prototype SKA dishes: SKA-P, which is currently being tested in China, and SKA-MPI (Max Planck Institute), funded by the Max Planck Society, which is under construction on the SKA site in South Africa’s Karoo region.
- “The SKA is a great opportunity for astronomers, engineers, physicists and data scientists. Besides becoming an amazing discovery machine, SKA pushes the boundaries of what is technically possible, especially in the handling and analysis of huge amounts of data. The Max Planck Society is in the middle of all these exciting science and technology developments, and we are pleased to now be able to contribute officially to the SKAO (SKA Organization) efforts”, says Prof Michael Kramer, director at the MPIfR, Bonn, Germany.
- The German science community has a long-held interest in the SKA project even beyond the radio astronomy field, as showcased in the 2012 German White Paper: Pathway to the Square Kilometre Array and in the “Denkschrift 2017: Perspektiven der Astrophysik in Deutschland 2017-2030“, which is the German equivalent to the US Decadal Survey. The German community is also heavily involved in the SKA’s Science Working Groups and Focus Groups and represented the third largest groups of authors in the 2000-page SKA Science Book: Advancing Astrophysics with the Square Kilometer Array, published in 2015.
- Germany has decades of experience in radio astronomy and is home to the Effelsberg 100 m Radio Telescope, the world’s second-largest fully steerable radio telescope, located near Bonn. In operation since 1972, the 100 m dish has been continuously upgraded, developing and testing also SKA technology as MPIfR’s flagship telescope. Germany also hosts six Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) stations, an SKA pathfinder facility which stretches across Europe.
Figure 23: The Max Planck Society has funded a second SKA prototype dish, SKA-MPI, currently being constructed on site in South Africa, bringing together Chinese, Italian and German components [image credit: SARAO (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory)]
• 12 March 2019: Countries involved in the SKA (Square Kilometer Array) Project have come together in Rome, Italy, for the signature of the international treaty establishing the intergovernmental organization that will oversee the delivery of the world’s largest radio telescope. 31)
- Ministers, Ambassadors and other high-level representatives from over 15 countries have gathered in the Italian capital for the signature of the treaty which establishes the SKAO (Square Kilometer Array Observatory), the intergovernmental organization (IGO) tasked with delivering and operating the SKA.
Figure 24: The initial signatories of the SKA Observatory Convention. From left to right: UK Ambassador to Italy Jill Morris, China’s Vice Minister of Science and Technology Jianguo Zhang, Portugal’s Minister for Science, Technology and Higher Education Manuel Heitor, Italian Minister of Education, Universities and Research Marco Bussetti, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, the Netherlands Deputy Director of the Department for Science and Research Policy at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science Oscar Delnooz, and Australia’s Ambassador to Italy Greg French (image credit: SKA Organization)
- “Today we are particularly honored to sign, right here at the Ministry of Education, University and Research, the Treaty for the establishment of the SKA Observatory” Italian Minister of Education Marco Bussetti who presided over the event, said. “A signature that comes after a long phase of negotiations, in which our country has played a leading role. The Rome Convention testifies the spirit of collaboration that scientific research triggers between countries and people around the world, because science speaks all the languages of the planet and its language connects the whole world. This Treaty – he added – is the moment that marks our present and our future history, the history of science and knowledge of the Universe. The SKA project is the icon of the increasingly strategic role that scientific research has taken on in contemporary society. Research is the engine of innovation and growth: knowledge translates into individual and collective well-being, both social and economic. Participating in the forefront of such an extensive and important international project is a great opportunity for the Italian scientific community, both for the contribution that our many excellencies can give and for sharing the big amount of data that SKA will collect and redistribute”
- Seven countries signed the treaty today, including Australia, China, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom. India and Sweden, who also took part in the multilateral negotiations to set up the SKA Observatory IGO, are following further internal processes before signing the treaty. Together, these countries will form the founding members of the new organization.
- Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, Chair of the SKA Board of Directors, added “Rome wasn’t built in a day. Likewise, designing, building and operating the world’s biggest telescope takes decades of efforts, expertise, innovation, perseverance, and global collaboration. Today we’ve laid the foundations that will enable us to make the SKA a reality.”
- The SKA will be the largest science facility on the planet, with infrastructure spread across three continents on both hemispheres. Its two networks of hundreds of dishes and thousands of antennas will be distributed over hundreds of kilometers in Australia and South Africa, with the Headquarters in the United Kingdom.
- Together with facilities like the James Webb Space Telescope, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the LIGO gravitational wave detector, the new generation of extremely large optical telescopes and the ITER fusion reactor, the SKA will be one of humanity’s cornerstone physics machines in the 21st century.
- Prof. Philip Diamond, Director-General of the SKA Organization which has led the design of the telescope added: “Like Galileo’s telescope in its time, the SKA will revolutionize how we understand the world around us and our place in it. Today’s historic signature shows a global commitment behind this vision, and opens up the door to generations of ground-breaking discoveries.”
- It will help address fundamental gaps in our understanding of the Universe, enabling astronomers from its participating countries to study gravitational waves and test Einstein’s theory of relativity in extreme environments, investigate the nature of the mysterious fast radio bursts, improve our understanding of the evolution of the Universe over billions of years, map hundreds of millions of galaxies and look for signs of life in the Universe.
- Two of the world’s fastest supercomputers will be needed to process the unprecedented amounts of data emanating from the telescopes, with some 600 petabytes (600 x 1015 Bytes) expected to be stored and distributed worldwide to the science community every year, or the equivalent of over half a million laptops worth of data.
- Close to 700 million euros worth of contracts for the construction of the SKA will start to be awarded from late 2020 to companies and providers in the SKA’s member countries, providing a substantial return on investment for those countries. Spinoffs are also expected to emerge from work to design and build the SKA, with start-ups already being created out of some of the design work and impact reaching far beyond astronomy.
- Over 1,000 engineers and scientists in 20 countries have been involved in designing the SKA over the past five years, with new research programs, educational initiatives and collaborations being created in various countries to train the next generation of scientists and engineers.
- Guests from Canada, France, Malta, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Spain and Switzerland were also in attendance to witness the signature and reaffirmed their strong interest in the project. They all confirmed they are making their best efforts to prepare the conditions for a future decision of participation of their respective country in the SKA Observatory.
- The signature concludes three and a half years of negotiations by government representatives and international lawyers, and kicks off the legislative process in the signing countries, which will see SKAO enter into force once five countries including all three hosts have ratified the treaty through their respective legislatures.
- SKAO becomes only the second intergovernmental organization dedicated to astronomy in the world, after ESO (European Southern Observatory).
• SKA Global Headquarters, 25 February 2019: The two engineering consortia tasked with designing all the essential infrastructure for the SKA sites in Australia and South Africa have formally concluded their work, bringing to a close nearly five years of collaboration both within and between the consortia. 32)
- Infrastructure Australia (INAU) and Infrastructure South Africa (INSA) were each led by institutions with great expertise in radio astronomy projects: Australia’s CSIRO, which designed, built and operates the SKA precursor telescope ASKAP at its Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO); and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which designed, built and operates the SKA precursor telescope MeerKAT. Industry partners also played key roles in both consortia*, while the European Union’s Research and Innovation program Horizon 2020 awarded an additional €5M to conduct further work at both sites and at the SKA Global Headquarters in the UK.
Note*: Infrastructure Australia consortium members included the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Aurecon Australia and Rider Levett Bucknall. Infrastructure South Africa consortium members included the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), Aurecon South Africa and HHO Africa.
- The consortia were responsible for designing everything required to be able to deploy and operate the SKA in its two host countries, from roads, buildings, power, to RFI shielding, water and sanitation. Both CSIRO and SARAO developed valuable expertise from delivering the two precursor telescopes, which they applied to their work designing the SKA’s site infrastructure.
- “This is the culmination of many years of development on both sites in preparation for the start of construction of the SKA,” says Gary Davis, the SKA’s Director of Operations Planning and chair of the review panel. “Both consortia have done a stellar job in collaboration with one another to design the crucial infrastructure that’ll support the SKA.”
- A major goal of the two consortia was to collaborate with each other in order to develop a common engineering approach, share knowledge and provide lessons learnt through the design and delivery of SKA precursors.
- “From the start we developed what we called the GIG, the good ideas group” says Ant Schinckel, Infrastructure Australia’s Consortium Lead. “Our engineers would continuously engage with each other to discuss issues in both countries and find common solutions that could be applied to both sites” complements Tracy Cheetham, Infrastructure South Africa’s Consortium Lead.
- “I’d like to thank both teams for their excellent work” said Martin Austin, the SKA’s Infrastructure Project Manager “The quality of the design and their approach to safety means that we can now carry this work forward with a high degree of confidence, supported by both CSIRO and SARAO and their industry partners.”
- INAU and INSA formed part of a global effort by 12 international engineering consortia, representing 500 engineers and scientists in 20 countries. Nine of the consortia focused on the SKA’s core elements, while three others were tasked with developing advanced instrumentation.
- In 2018 and 2019 the nine consortia are having their Critical Design Reviews (CDRs), during which the proposed design must meet the project’s tough engineering requirements to be approved, before a construction proposal for the SKA can be developed.
- In June and July 2018, both infrastructure consortia had successful CDRs and subsequently made the final refinements to their designs. With that work complete the consortia now formally disband, although the SKA will continue to work closely with former members in the months ahead as the overall System CDR approaches, to ensure that the infrastructure design aligns with all of the other components.
Figure 25: SKA’s Infrastructure consortia completed their detailed design work for the SKA sites in 2018 (image credit: SKA Organization)
Figure 26: The Square Kilometer Array is an ambitious project to create a gigantic telescope from two enormous arrays of smaller antennas located in South Africa and Australia. The huge collecting area of the SKA will give it unprecedented sensitivity, enabling it to search for faint signals from far away sources. For SETI, it will be able to detect civilizations on other planets orbiting other stars, even if they are no more technologically advanced than our own civilization, and are not deliberately messaging us. — In this video, we sit down with some of the scientists and engineers who are spearheading the SKA project, at the SKA headquarters in Jodrell Bank, near Manchester, England (video credit: BerkeleySETI, Published on Aug 2, 2018)
• SKA Global Headquarters, 20 February 2019: The international Central Signal Processor (CSP) consortium has concluded its design work on the SKA, marking the end of five years’ work comprised of 11 signatory members from 8 countries with more than 10 additional participating organizations. 33)
Figure 27: Members of the Central Signal Processor consortium at SKA Global Headquarters during the Critical Design Review in September 2018 (image credit: SKA Organization)
- The consortium, led by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC)*, has designed the elements that will together form the “processing heart” of the SKA. The CSP is the first stage of processing for the masses of digitized astronomical signals collected by the telescope’s receivers. It’s where the correlation and beamforming takes place to make sense of the jumble of signals, before the data is sent onwards to the Science Data Processor. At that stage, the data is ready to be turned into detailed astronomical images of the sky.
Note*: The CSP Consortium Project Management Office was led by a collaboration between the NRC and MDA, a contracted industry partner. Active consortium members (signatories) at the conclusion of the work included: Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON), Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) (Australia), Swinburne University of Technology (Australia), Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (Germany), National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) (Italy), New Zealand Alliance (AUT University, Massey University, University of Auckland, Compucon New Zealand and Open Parallel Ltd.), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) (UK), University of Manchester (UK), and University of Oxford (UK).
Figure 28: First impressions gathered after the Critical Design Review for the SKA's Central Signal Processor at the SKA's Global Headquarters in the UK (video credit: SKA Organization, published on 4 October 2018)
- The CSP includes the Pulsar Search and Timing sub-elements, which enable astronomers to detect and characterize pulsars and fast transients. This will facilitate the most comprehensive and ambitious survey yet to detect all pulsars in our own galaxy as well as the first extragalactic pulsars. The Pulsar Search sub-element is based on a hybrid architecture of Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) and Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) computing boards. The design team was led by the University of Manchester (UK), University of Oxford (UK) and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (Germany) supported by input from INAF (Italy), New Zealand Alliance, STFC ATC Edinburgh (UK), and ASTRON (the Netherlands). The Pulsar Timing sub-element is based on GPUs. The design team consisted of participants from Swinburne University of Technology (Australia) and the New Zealand Alliance.
Figure 29: Low CBF (Correlation and Beam Forming) liquid-cooled Perentie Gemini Processing Board (left), Mid CBF Air-cooled TALON-DX Processing Board (right), image credit: SKA Organization
- As part of their work, the consortium designed the FPGA computing boards that will perform correlation and beamforming (CBF) on the signals from the SKA. The CBF for the SKA-mid telescope -to be located in South Africa- is based on Intel FPGA technology and was led by the NRC with support from MDA, a Maxar Technologies company, AUT University (New Zealand), and INAF. The CBF for the SKA-low telescope -to be located in Australia- is based on Xilinx technology, was led by CSIRO with support from ASTRON and AUT University. Hundreds of these boards are required to meet the demanding processing requirements.
- The Local Monitoring and Control sub-element was led by the NRC with contributions from MDA, INAF, and NCRA (India).
- The consortium was given a full pass by the review panel during the CSP Critical Design Review (CDR) in September, the first SKA engineering consortium to receive this result. With very few actions required following the review, the consortium has now concluded its work.
- “This is an extremely complex system – it has to process as many bits every 15 seconds as all the bits that are flowing through the global internet today,” said Consortium Lead Luc Simard of the NRC. “That’s a huge processing challenge at a site with limited electrical power and cooling power, and we have to fit a lot of hardware in a tight, restricted environment. To meet this challenge we needed a team of the highest quality – we have the best of the best and working with them has been a real honor. I’m really thankful for all their work.”
- The consortium was formed in late 2013 as one of 12 international engineering consortia tasked with designing the SKA, a global effort representing 500 engineers in 20 countries. Nine consortia focused on core elements, while three developed advanced instrumentation for the telescope. The nine consortia are now at CDR stage, where an expert panel examines each design proposal against the SKA’s stringent requirements.
- The consortium was formed in late 2013 as one of 12 international engineering consortia tasked with designing the SKA, a global effort representing 500 engineers in 20 countries. Nine consortia focused on core elements, while three developed advanced instrumentation for the telescope. The nine consortia are now at CDR stage, where an expert panel examines each design proposal against the SKA’s stringent requirements.
- Now that its work is complete the consortium formally disbands, although the SKA Organization will work closely with participating countries to prepare for the overall System CDR and the development of the SKA construction proposal.
- “What made the design challenge so difficult are the exacting requirements for a telescope to deliver SKA telescope transformational science,” said Philip Gibbs, SKA Organization Project Manager for CSP. “The system has to meet observing requirements that may include imaging, as well as VLBI, and pulsar search and timing, all at the same time. As well as the power and space issues on site, we’ve naturally also been constrained by the cost involved in providing a solution.”
- “To reach this point is a testament to the tremendous effort of all the institutions involved in designing CSP – my heartfelt thanks go to them. We look forward to continued collaboration as we progress down the road towards construction of the SKA.”
Australia Antenna Array
Under the joint hosting arrangements, Australia will host the SKA’s low frequency aperture array antennas. 34)
In Phase 1, Australia will host over one hundred thousand antennas (each about 2 meters in height) covering low frequency radio waves, to be expanded to up to a million antennas in Phase 2. This array will conduct research into one of the most interesting periods of the Universe, looking back to the first billion years of the Universe to look at the formation of the first stars and galaxies, providing valuable insight into dark matter and dark energy and the evolution of the Universe.
It will provide an increased capability over existing infrastructure at the same frequencies, providing 25% better resolution and being 8 times more sensitive than LOFAR ( Low-Frequency Array) radio telescope, the current best such instrument. Moreover, it will be able to scan the sky 135 times faster. The sheer amount of raw data produced by all these antennas will be equivalent to five times the internet traffic.
ASKAP (Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder) is CSIRO’s (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) radio telescope currently being commissioned at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia. Another important precursor for the SKA located in that region is the MWA (Murchison Widefield Array) 35) 36)
The MRO location is in a remote outback region about 350 km northeast from Geraldton in Western Australia. This follows the signing of an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with the Wajarri Yamatji Claimant Group. This region is ideal for a new radio observatory because the population density is very low and there is a lack of man-made radio signals that would otherwise interfere with weak astronomical signals.
Construction of ASKAP began in early 2010, and all 36 antennas, as well as site infrastructure, were completed in mid-2012. ASKAP is currently undergoing the fit-out of its complex PAF receiver systems and electronics, as well as commissioning.
Figure 30: The core of the Australian SKA activity is located at CSIRO's Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO), and surrounding Mid West Radio-Quiet Zone in Western Australia. The MRO is already home to the ASKAP telescope, as well as another of the SKA precursors, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), image credit: ATNF
As part of SKA pre-construction, CSIRO is taking a lead role in a number of R&D consortia involved in the design and validation process of the SKA, including ‘Dish’, ‘Infrastructure-Australia’ and ‘Assembly, Integration and Verification’. The CSIRO SKA Center has also been established to coordinate and guide SKA activities within the organization.
Australia’s existing 36 dish ASKAP telescope , each 12 m in diameter, is conducting groundbreaking research into new promising technologies for the SKA. Equipped with PAF (Phased Array Feed) technology, it will be able to survey large areas of the sky in great detail. The PAF for ASKAP provides the antenna with a wide FOV (Field of View) by creating 30 separate (simultaneous) beams to give a FOV of 30 º x 30º (the width of your little finger at arms length is around 1º), speeding up survey time quite considerably. 37)
ASKAP's rapid survey capability makes it one of the world’s fastest survey radio telescopes. The PAF receivers have been specifically developed for ASKAP by CSIRO and this is the first time this type of technology has been used in radio astronomy. Traditional radio telescopes are good at providing a detailed view of a distant object. However, what astronomers often want is to study large volumes of space at once. With a traditional radio telescope, we can only do this by painstakingly looking in lots of different directions at different times. ASKAP can image (in 3D) large areas all at once, with much greater sensitivity than previous all-sky surveys. ASKAP has also been designed to be extremely fast - it will be able to detect millions of radio sources in a matter of days, opening new fields of research.
In addition to being a world-leading telescope in its own right, ASKAP is an important technology demonstrator for the SKA. ASKAP’s home, the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site will be the central site for major components of SKA telescope infrastructure in Australia.
Figure 31: ASKAP’s ‘field of view’ is depicted showing the 36 beams as individual circles. We get all of this in one go. By comparison, the field of view of a traditional telescope would be a single slightly smaller circle. The moon diameter is half the diameter of one of these circles (image credit:ATNF)
• Total collecting area of 4,000 m2, from 36 antennas, each 12 m in diameter
• System temperature less than 50 K
• Frequency range from 700 MHz to 1.8 GHz
• 300 MHz instantaneous bandwidth
• 36 independent beams, each of about 1º x 1º, yield overlapping to a 30º x 30º field-of-view at 1.4 GHz
• 6 km maximum baseline
• Full cross-correlation of all antennas
• Remote array station capability located in NSW, approximately 3,000 km from the core site.
Figure 32: Antennas of CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder at the Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory in Western Australia (image credit: CSIRO, Steve Barker)
Figure 33: A phased array feed (PAF) receiver installed on an ASKAP antenna at the Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory (image credit: CSIRO, Barry Turner)
LFAA (Low Frequency Aperture Array)
The LFAA Element, a work package executed by the AADC (Aperture Array Design & Construction) Consortium, is one of the elements of the SKA1-LOW telescope and is defined as the antenna array stations, including the station signal processing, control and calibration. The work is set out in the Statement of Work agreed with the SKAO. 38)
The AADC Consortium team started working together in 2010 with a specific focus on SKA-LOW. Longer connections go back to SKADS, an EU FP6 project which started in 2005. The formation of the Consortium was therefore based on previous work and groups, which made it possible to move quickly to the actual realization and testing of prototypes. In particular Aperture Array Verification System 0.5 (AAVS0.5), was installed at the Murchison Radio Observatory as early as May 2013. This system has proven to be very valuable already (The initial LFAA specification sought to define an array capable of operating from 70-450 MHz).
The three SKA low-frequency pathfinders and precursor telescopes, LOFAR, NenuFAR and MWA, have been designed and realized and are currently operated by members of the AADC Consortium. The experience and knowledge gained is directly available for LFAA. Furthermore both LOFAR and MWA can be used as a test bed for new LFAA technology, this has already been proven to be very effective, most notably in the case of AAVS0.5 and MWA.
November 1st, 2013 marks the start of Stage 1 of the SKA1 preconstruction phase, to be finished in March 2015. The Preliminary Design Review (PDR) is a crucial milestone at the completion of Stage 1. As well as the design documents for PDR, intermediate deliverables have been generated and accepted. By the end of January, the AADC Consortium successfully passed its PDR!
In March 2015 the SKA members decided that SKA1-Low in Australia should be built. 50% of the planned 262,144 low frequency dipoles should be deployed. The array should cover the frequency range 50-350 MHz, as planned. The current planned baseline lengths of ~80km should be retained. The inclusion of a pulsar search capability for SKA1-Low (currently an Engineering Change Proposal on hold) should be actively explored.
The LFAA will be located in Australia, primarily in Western Australia. Observing frequencies in the 50- 350 MHz region, SKA-low will probe 13 billion years back in time to the period when the first stars and galaxies began to form. Phase 1 of SKA-low will deploy roughly 250,000 identical antennas and amplifiers. The array will be supported by local processing technology to combine the individual signals and transport them to the final supercomputing facility that will conduct final data processing and storage. 39)
The antennas have been designed to minimize cost and maximize ease of deployment and reliability in the remote environment. The core of the array will be tightly packed, with 75% of antennas located within a 2 km radius (at approximately 1.5m separation). The remaining antennas will form spiral arms spanning about 50 km to enhance final image detail.
Figure 34: An artist impression of the low frequency antennas in Australia with the ASKAP telescope in the background (image credit: CSIRO)
ASKAP (Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder) development and mission status
• December 23, 2021: Astronomers have produced the most comprehensive image of radio emission from the nearest actively feeding supermassive black hole to Earth. 40)
- The emission is powered by a central black hole in the galaxy Centaurus A, about 12 million light years away.
Figure 35: Centaurus A is a giant elliptical active galaxy 12 million light-years away. At its heart lies a black hole with a mass of 55 million suns. This image shows the galaxy at radio wavelengths, revealing vast lobes of plasma that reach far beyond the visible galaxy, which occupies only a small patch at the centre of the image. The dots in the background are not stars, but radio galaxies much like Centaurus A, at far greater distances (image credit: Ben McKinley, ICRAR (International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research) West Australia / Curtin University and Connor Matherne, Louisiana State University)
Figure 36: Tile 107, or “the Outlier” as it is known, is one of 256 tiles of the MWA located 1.5 km from the core of the telescope. The MWA is a precursor instrument to the SKA (Photographed by Pete Wheeler, ICRAR)
- As the black hole feeds on in-falling gas, it ejects material at near light-speed, causing ‘radio bubbles’ to grow over hundreds of millions of years.
- When viewed from Earth, the eruption from Centaurus A now extends eight degrees across the sky—the length of 16 full Moons laid side by side.
- It was captured using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope in outback Western Australia.
- The research was published today in the journal Nature Astronomy. 41)
- Lead author Dr Benjamin McKinley, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said the image reveals spectacular new details of the radio emission from the galaxy.
- “These radio waves come from material being sucked into the supermassive black hole in the middle of the galaxy,” he said.
- “It forms a disc around the black hole, and as the matter gets ripped apart going close to the black hole, powerful jets form on either side of the disc, ejecting most of the material back out into space, to distances of probably more than a million light years.
- “Previous radio observations could not handle the extreme brightness of the jets and details of the larger area surrounding the galaxy were distorted, but our new image overcomes these limitations.”
- Centaurus A is the closest radio galaxy to our own Milky Way.
- “We can learn a lot from Centaurus A in particular, just because it is so close and we can see it in such detail,” Dr McKinley said.
- “Not just at radio wavelengths, but at all other wavelengths of light as well.
- “In this research we’ve been able to combine the radio observations with optical and x-ray data, to help us better understand the physics of these supermassive black holes.”
- Astrophysicist Dr Massimo Gaspari, from Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics, said the study corroborated a novel theory known as ‘Chaotic Cold Accretion’ (CCA), which is emerging in different fields.
- “In this model, clouds of cold gas condense in the galactic halo and rain down onto the central regions, feeding the supermassive black hole,” he said.
- “Triggered by this rain, the black hole vigorously reacts by launching energy back via radio jets that inflate the spectacular lobes we see in the MWA image. This study is one of the first to probe in such detail the multiphase CCA ‘weather’ over the full range of scales”, Dr Gaspari concluded.
- Dr McKinley said the galaxy appears brighter in the centre where it is more active and there is a lot of energy.
- “Then it’s fainter as you go out because the energy’s been lost and things have settled down,” he said.
- “But there are interesting features where charged particles have re-accelerated and are interacting with strong magnetic fields.”
- MWA director Professor Steven Tingay said the research was possible because of the telescope’s extremely wide field-of-view, superb radio-quiet location, and excellent sensitivity.
- “The MWA is a precursor for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)—a global initiative to build the world’s largest radio telescopes in Western Australia and South Africa,” he said.
- “The wide field of view and, as a consequence, the extraordinary amount of data we can collect, means that the discovery potential of every MWA observation is very high. This provides a fantastic step toward the even bigger SKA.”
Figure 37: Centaurus A is a giant elliptical active galaxy 12 million light-years away. At its heart lies a black hole with a mass of 55 million suns. This composite image shows the galaxy and the surrounding intergalactic space at several different wavelengths. The radio plasma is displayed in blue and appears to be interacting with hot X-ray emitting gas (orange) and cold neutral hydrogen (purple). Clouds emitting Halpha (red) are also shown above the main optical part of the galaxy which lies in between the two brightest radio blobs. The ‘background’ is at optical wavelengths, showing stars in our own Milky Way that are actually in the foreground [image credit: Connor Matherne, Louisiana State University (Optical/Halpha), Kraft et al. (X-ray), Struve et al. (HI), Ben McKinley, ICRAR/Curtin. (Radio)]
Figure 38: Composite image of the SKA-Low telescope in Western Australia. The image blends a real photo (on the left) of the SKA-Low prototype station AAVS2.0 which is already on-site, with an artist’s impression of the future SKA-Low stations as they will look when constructed. These dipole antennas, which will number in their hundreds of thousands, will survey the radio sky at frequencies as low as 50MHz (image credit: ICRAR, SKAO)
- The MWA (Murchison Widefield Array) is managed and operated by Curtin University on behalf of an international consortium, and is located on the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia. The observatory is managed by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, and was established with the support of the Australian and Western Australian Governments. We acknowledge the Wajarri Yamatji as the traditional owners of the observatory site.
- The Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre in Perth–a Tier 1 publicly funded national supercomputing facility–helped store and process the MWA observations used in this research.
• August 19, 2021: Scientists have measured thousands of nearby stars and far away galaxies that have never been identified before at radio wavelengths, while studying a galactic body that neighbors our own Milky Way galaxy—the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). 42) 43)
- Led by Keele University (UK) Ph.D. student Clara M. Pennock and Reader in Astrophysics, Dr. Jacco van Loon, the international team of researchers used the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope to "photograph" the Cloud at radio wavelengths and study the stellar structures within, taking some of the sharpest radio images of the Cloud ever recorded.
- The Large Magellanic Cloud is a galaxy which borders our own, the Milky Way, and is known as a satellite dwarf spiral galaxy. It is around 158,200 light years away from Earth and is home to tens of millions of stars.
- Due to its proximity to the Milky Way, it provides an excellent benchmark for researchers studying fundamental questions, such as how stars form and how galaxies are structured.
- The researchers not only took the sharpest radio images of the Cloud ever recorded, but during their analysis they also studied the stars themselves which form the cloud's structure, including the Tarantula Nebula, the most active star-formation region in the Local Group. Furthermore, newly detected radio emission has also been studied from distant galaxies in the background as well as stars in the foreground from our own Milky Way.
- This study, published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, forms part of the Evolutionary Map of the Universe (EMU) Early Science Project, which will observe the entire Southern sky and is predicted to detect around 40 million galaxies. The data will ultimately be used to give researchers a clearer picture of how galaxies, and their stars, have evolved throughout time.
- Lead author Clara Pennock from Keele University said: "The sharp and sensitive new image reveals thousands of radio sources we've never seen before. Most of these are actually galaxies millions or even billions of light years beyond the Large Magellanic Cloud. We typically see them because of the supermassive black holes in their centers which can be detected at all wavelengths, especially radio. But we now also start finding many galaxies in which stars are forming at a tremendous rate. Combining this data with previous observations from X-ray, optical and infrared telescopes will allow us to explore these galaxies in extraordinary detail."
- Dr. Jacco van Loon, Reader in Astrophysics at Keele University said: "With so many stars and nebulae packed together, the increased sharpness of the image has been instrumental in discovering radio emitting stars and compact nebulae in the LMC. We see all sorts of radio sources, from individual fledgling stars to planetary nebulae that result from the death of stars like the Sun."
- Co-author Professor Andrew Hopkins, from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and leader of the EMU (Evolutionary Map of the Universe) survey, added: "It's gratifying to see these exciting results coming from the early EMU observations. EMU is an incredibly ambitious project with scientific goals that range from understanding star and galaxy evolution to cosmological measurements of dark matter and dark energy, and much more. The discoveries from this early work demonstrate the power of the ASKAP telescope to deliver sensitive images over wide areas of sky, offering a tantalizing glimpse of what the full EMU survey may reveal. This investigation has been critical in allowing us to design the main survey, which we expect will start in early 2022."
- ASKAP is owned by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). ASKAP is an array of 36 dish antennas with a largest separation of six kilometers, which when combined act like a telescope that is about 4000 square meters in size.
- ASKAP employs a novel technique called phased array feeds (PAF), and each of the 36 antennas has a PAF that allow the telescope to look at the sky in 36 directions at once, increasing the amount of sky that can be observed at once to 30 square degrees on the sky and thus, increasing survey speed.
- ASKAP is a precursor to the SKA, the world's largest radio telescope, which is currently being built in South Africa and Australia, and is headquartered at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester, UK.
Figure 39: Never-before-seen radio waves detected in the LMC (Large Magellan Cloud), image credit: Keele University
• April 21, 2021: Astronomers have discovered a pulsar—a dense and rapidly spinning neutron star sending radio waves into the cosmos—using a low-frequency radio telescope in outback Australia. The pulsar was detected with the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope, in Western Australia’s remote Mid West region. 44)
Figure 40: Tile 107, or “the Outlier” as it is known, is one of 256 tiles of the MWA located 1.5km from the core of the telescope. The MWA is a precursor instrument to the SKA (photographed by Pete Wheeler, ICRAR)
- It’s the first time scientists have discovered a pulsar with the MWA but they believe it will be the first of many.
- The finding is a sign of things to come from the multi-billion-dollar Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescope. The MWA is a precursor telescope for the SKA.
- Nick Swainston, a PhD student at the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), made the discovery while processing data collected as part of an ongoing pulsar survey. ICRAR is a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia with support and funding from the State Government of Western Australia.
- “Pulsars are born as a result of supernovae—when a massive star explodes and dies, it can leave behind a collapsed core known as a neutron star,” he said. “They’re about one and a half times the mass of the Sun, but all squeezed within only 20 km, and they have ultra-strong magnetic fields.”
- Mr Swainston said pulsars spin rapidly and emit electromagnetic radiation from their magnetic poles.
- “Every time that emission sweeps across our line of sight, we see a pulse—that’s why we call them pulsars,” he said. “You can imagine it like a giant cosmic lighthouse.”
Figure 41: Radio wave emission from a pulsar. Neutron Stars, Pulsars, and Magnetars are the most extreme objects in the Universe that aren't Black Holes. Their extreme densities make neutron stars the densest solid bodies in the Universe ultra-powerful magnetic fields (video credit: ICRAR)
- ICRAR-Curtin astronomer Dr Ramesh Bhat said the newly discovered pulsar is located more than 3000 light-years from Earth and spins about once every second.
- “That’s incredibly fast compared to regular stars and planets,” he said. “But in the world of pulsars, it’s pretty normal.”
- Dr Bhat said the finding was made using about one per cent of the large volume of data collected for the pulsar survey.
- “We’ve only scratched the surface,” he said. “When we do this project at full-scale, we should find hundreds of pulsars in the coming years.”
- Pulsars are used by astronomers for several applications including testing the laws of physics under extreme conditions.
- “A spoonful of material from a neutron star would weigh millions of tons,” Dr Bhat said. “Their magnetic fields are some of the strongest in the Universe—about 1000 billion times stronger than that we have on Earth.”
- “So we can use them to do physics that we can’t do in any of the Earth-based laboratories.”
- Finding pulsars and using them for extreme physics is also a key science driver for the SKA telescope.
- MWA Director Professor Steven Tingay said the discovery hints at a large population of pulsars awaiting discovery in the Southern Hemisphere.
- “This finding is really exciting because the data processing is incredibly challenging, and the results show the potential for us to discover many more pulsars with the MWA and the low-frequency part of the SKA.”
- “The study of pulsars is one of the headline areas of science for the multi-billion-dollar SKA, so it is great that our team is at the forefront of this work,” he said. 45)
Figure 42: An artist’s impression of Pulsar — a dense and rapidly spinning neutron star sending radio waves into the cosmos (image credit: ICRAR / Curtin University)
• December 16, 2020: Australian researchers from Western Sydney University, Macquarie University, and Australia's national science agency, CSIRO, have contributed to the first observation of a gas filament with a length of 50 million light years - confirming current 'big bang' ideas about the origin and evolution of the Universe. 46)
- New research published today in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics describes the discovery of the longest gas filament yet seen. At 50 million light years long, this thread of hot gas stretches between two vast clusters of galaxies that are in the process of merging together. This discovery strikingly resembles predictions from computer simulations about how structure in the Universe should appear and confirms the understanding of the way the Universe has evolved. 47)
- This study used data from the eROSITA space telescope and CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope in Western Australia. The x-ray measurements from eROSITA are sensitive to the hot gas present in the galaxy clusters, while the ASKAP radio data pick out emission associated with galaxies and arising from extended energetic jets powered by supermassive black holes within those galaxies. Combining the data from both facilities allows a unique perspective on the complex interplay between gas and galaxies in this system of merging galaxy clusters.
- For many years we have known about the relationship between gas in galaxy clusters and the way the galaxies themselves influence and are influenced by such hot gas. In particular, the radio jets from galaxies with supermassive black holes are known to be able to push the hot gas within a cluster aside as they shoot out into space. The novel discovery with these latest observations arises from the unique nature of the extended hot gas filament. These kinds of structure have been predicted in the best current models of the Universe, but this is the first time such a clear example has been discovered.
- The ASKAP telescope was able to image the entire merging cluster system in a single exposure due to the extremely large field of view of its Phased Array Feed (PAF) technology. The highly sensitive radio image spanning the entirety of this complex galaxy system has enabled the identification of many extended radio structures, associated with supermassive black holes. The way this extended radio emission is distorted in the comparatively dense cluster gas as these galaxies fall into the clusters helps to identify which way they are moving and in turn trace the gravitational influence of the complex cluster pair. This information adds evidence for the way such structures evolve, in support of the underlying model of the Universe.
- Almost 50 scientists from institutions in Germany, Australia, the USA, Switzerland, Chile, Spain, South Africa and Japan participated in the study, led by Prof. Thomas Reiprech at the University of Bonn. The eROSITA telescope is a joint German-Russian facility, developed with funding from the Max Planck Society and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and launched into space last year on board a Russian-German satellite whose construction was supported by the Russian space agency Roskosmos. The ASKAP telescope was developed by CSIRO and is sited at the Murchison Radio Observatory in Western Australia. Its novel PAF technology enables it to rapidly deliver extremely sensitive radio images over large areas of the sky.
- The ASKAP measurements in this investigation were taken as part of the "early science observations" for a project called the Evolutionary Map of the Universe, also known as ‘EMU’, one of nine major survey programs planned with ASKAP. EMU is an international collaboration of over 400 scientists, led by Professor Andrew Hopkins at Macquarie University, who participated in this study. The success of these preliminary observations is a positive sign for the full project, expected to start in late 2021, which will map the entire Southern Hemisphere, an area about 1000 times as large as covered here, and with even better sensitivity.
Figure 43: Optical image of the Abell 3391/95 system taken with the DECam camera. Superimposed are the eROSITA image (darker = higher gas density) and radio contours (yellow) of the ASKAP telescope (image credit: © Reiprich et al., Astronomy & Astrophysics)
• December 1, 2020: ASKAP, developed and operated by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, mapped approximately three million galaxies in just 300 hours. 48)
- The Rapid ASKAP Continuum Survey (RACS) is like a Google map of the Universe where most of the millions of star-like points on the map are distant galaxies – about a million of which we’ve never seen before.
- CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said ASKAP brought together world-class infrastructure with scientific and engineering expertise to unlock the deepest secrets of the Universe.
- “ASKAP is applying the very latest in science and technology to age-old questions about the mysteries of the Universe and equipping astronomers around the world with new breakthroughs to solve their challenges,” Dr Marshall said.
- “It’s all enabled by innovative receivers developed by CSIRO that feature phased array feed technology, which see ASKAP generate more raw data at a faster rate than Australia’s entire internet traffic.
- “In a time when we have access to more data than ever before, ASKAP and the supercomputers that support it are delivering unparalleled insights and wielding the tools that will underpin our data-driven future to make life better for everybody.
- The telescope’s key feature is its wide field of view, generated by new CSIRO-designed receivers, that enable ASKAP to take panoramic pictures of the sky in amazing detail.
- Using ASKAP at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in outback Western Australia, the survey team observed 83% of the entire sky.
- The initial results are published today in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia. 49)
- RACS (Rapid ASKAP Continuum Survey) is the first large-area survey to be conducted with the full 36-antenna ASKAP (Australian SquareKilometer Array Pathfinder) telescope. RACS will provide a shallow model of the ASKAP sky that will aid the calibration of futuredeep ASKAP surveys. RACS will cover the whole sky visible from the ASKAP site in Western Australia and will cover the full ASKAP bandof 700–1800 MHz. The RACS images are generally deeper than the existing NRAO VLA Sky Survey and Sydney University Molonglo SkySurvey radio surveys and have better spatial resolution. All RACS survey products will be public, including radio images (with~15 arcsecresolution) and catalogues of about three million source components with spectral index and polarisation information. In this paper, wepresent a description of the RACS survey and the first data release of 903 images covering the sky south of declination+41ºmade over a288-MHz band centered at 887.5 MHz.
Figure 44: Artist's rendition of the Rapid ASKAP Continuum Survey (image credit: CSIRO)
• November 9, 2020: The iconic Parkes radio telescope has received a special honor from Australia’s first scientists and astronomers. Wiradjuri Elders gave the 64-meter telescope a traditional indigenous name during NAIDOC Week. It’s new name is Murriyang. 50)
- In the Wiradjuri Dreaming, Biyaami (Baiame) is a prominent creator spirit. The stars that portray the Orion constellation also represent this spirit. Murriyang represents the ‘Skyworld’ where Biyaami lives.
- This year’s NAIDOC Week theme is Always Was, Always Will Be. It recognizes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have occupied and cared for this continent for more than 65,000 years. It also recognizes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were Australia’s first navigators, engineers, farmers, diplomats, botanists, artists, scientists and astronomers.
Choosing an Indigenous name
- Dr Stacy Mader, a Gidja man from Western Australia, is an astronomer and Senior Experimental Scientist at the Parkes Observatory (located in the west of New South Wales). He was responsible for organizing the traditional naming ceremony.
- “The local Wajarri Yamatji people in Western Australia named all 36 of our Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) antennas, with a plaque placed on each antenna, and names built into the control software,” Stacy said.
- “So when we got the same software for the 64-meter antenna at Parkes, the Aboriginal name was ‘not applicable’. I thought, we should probably fix that. And that’s how this process started.”
- So, Stacy set off to find the Traditional Owners to name the antennas.
- “The Wiradjuri nation is a large part of New South Wales, so finding the local Elders was a little tricky. There are no Traditional Owners who live in Parkes,” he said.
- “Eventually, I was set on the right path by Trevor Leaman, a cultural astronomer in Orange. He is studying Wiradjuri astronomical traditions in the School of Humanities and Language at the University of New South Wales.
- “But I was happy to spend the time looking because it’s very important to know you’re talking to the right people.”
- Stacy then invited Wiradjuri Elders from the local region to the Parkes site to show them around the telescopes and the grounds. They got a feel for the area, wildlife and background of the telescopes. The Elders then came back to Stacy with their chosen names.
Figure 45: The 64 meter Parkes radio telescope has been given the Wiradjuri name ”Murriyang”, which represents the ‘Skyworld’ where a prominent creator spirit of the Wiradjuri Dreaming, Biyaami (Baiame), lives (image credit: D. McClenaghan/CSIRO)
Two more ‘smart’ telescopes get new names
- It wasn’t just the 64-meter telescope that received the honor. Two more telescopes on site also received Wiradjuri names. These telescopes also have historical and technological significance to the development of radio astronomy in Australia.
- Giyalung Guluman: Means ‘smart dish’. This is now the name of a decommissioned 18-meter antenna. It was assembled at the Fleurs Radio Telescope Site, Penrith NSW, in 1960, and moved to Parkes in 1963. It started operating in 1965. The antenna, when linked to the 64-meter antenna, was pivotal in early work to determine the size and brightness of radio sources in the sky. And having the ability to move the antenna along a railway to observe was a smart way of doing things.
- Giyalung Miil: Means ‘smart eye’. This is now the name of the local 12-meter antenna. Commissioned in 2008, the telescope was a test bed for technology now used on the 36 antennas of ASKAP. These antennas use a special type of receiver. A phased array feed that is capable of looking at different parts of the sky at once. This ‘faceted eye’ is certainly a smart one.
Importance of recognition
- We have a Reconciliation Action Plan. This plan confirms our commitment to reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the oldest living culture in the world. Firstly, it recognizes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first people of Australia. Secondly, it respects their enduring connection to lands, skies, waters, plants and animals.
- By giving the telescopes their traditional names, we acknowledge the astronomical knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Wiradjuri language.
- We acknowledge the Wiradjuri People as the traditional owners of the Parkes Observatory. We also acknowledge the Wajarri Yamatji as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.
• September 8, 2020: A radio telescope in outback Western Australia has completed the deepest and broadest search at low frequencies for alien technologies, scanning a patch of sky known to include at least 10 million stars. 51)
- Astronomers used the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope to explore hundreds of times more broadly than any previous search for extraterrestrial life.
- The study, published today in Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, observed the sky around the Vela constellation. But in this part of the Universe at least, it appears other civilizations are elusive, if they exist. 52)
- The research was conducted by CSIRO astronomer Dr Chenoa Tremblay and Professor Steven Tingay, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR).
- Dr Tremblay said the telescope was searching for powerful radio emissions at frequencies similar to FM radio frequencies, that could indicate the presence of an intelligent source. — These possible emissions are known as ‘technosignatures’.
- “The MWA is a unique telescope (Figure 47), with an extraordinarily wide field-of-view that allows us to observe millions of stars simultaneously,” she said.
- “We observed the sky around the constellation of Vela for 17 hours, looking more than 100 times broader and deeper than ever before.
- “With this dataset, we found no technosignatures—no sign of intelligent life.”
- Professor Tingay said even though this was the broadest search yet, he was not shocked by the result.
- “As Douglas Adams noted in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, ‘space is big, really big’.”
- “And even though this was a really big study, the amount of space we looked at was the equivalent of trying to find something in the Earth’s oceans but only searching a volume of water equivalent to a large backyard swimming pool.
- “Since we can’t really assume how possible alien civilisations might utilise technology, we need to search in many different ways. Using radio telescopes, we can explore an eight-dimensional search space.
- Although there is a long way to go in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, telescopes such as the MWA will continue to push the limits—we have to keep looking.”
- The MWA is a precursor for the instrument that comes next, the SKA (Square Kilometer Array), a 1.7 billion Euro observatory with telescopes in Western Australia and South Africa. To continue the Douglas Adams references, think of the MWA as the city-sized Deep Thought and the SKA as its successor: the Earth.
- “Due to the increased sensitivity, the SKA low-frequency telescope to be built in Western Australia will be capable of detecting Earth-like radio signals from relatively nearby planetary systems,” said Professor Tingay.
- “With the SKA, we’ll be able to survey billions of star systems, seeking technosignatures in an astronomical ocean of other worlds.”
- The MWA is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, a remote and radio quiet astronomical facility established and maintained by CSIRO—Australia’s national science agency. The SKA will be built at the same location but will be 50 times more sensitive and will be able to undertake much deeper SETI experiments.
Figure 46: A 20-second exposure showing the Milky Way overhead the AAVS station (image credit: Michael Goh and ICRAR/Curtin)
• June 10, 2020: Following seven years of design and prototyping work, the Curtin University node of the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) has completed its preparations for the construction of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) in Western Australia, which will begin next year. 53)
Figure 47: Some of the tiles in the original core of the MWA array (image credit: Marianne Annereau)
- 130,000 individual radio antennas, along with associated electronics, will be built and spread over thousands of square kilometers at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO), approximately 800 km north of Perth. This will work in tandem with an array of 197 dishes located in the Karoo in South Africa, north of Cape Town.
- To be built by a global collaboration of 14 countries, the SKA will be one of the world’s largest science facilities, exploring the entire history and evolution of the Universe, and uncovering advances in fundamental physics.
- Preparatory work in Western Australia has accelerated over the last two years through an international partnership of SKA countries (Australia, China, Italy, Malta, The Netherlands, and the UK) driven by ICRAR’S Curtin University node and Italy’s Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (National Institute of Astrophysics). Recently, this significant effort culminated in a successful System Critical Design Review conducted by the SKA Organization, located near Manchester, UK, which coordinates the activities of the global collaboration.
- The ICRAR-Curtin University leader, John Curtin Distinguished Professor Steven Tingay said, “We have now passed the last major technical milestone before the international community commences construction of the SKA, with a budget of 1.87 billion euros over its first ten years.
- “Over the last seven years, the Commonwealth Government has supported my team with $10.1M to reach this milestone, and a significant fraction of these funds has helped Western Australian industry to get ready for SKA construction contracts, especially around Geraldton and the State’s Mid-West.”
- Alongside the engineering preparations, scientific preparations continue apace, with big discoveries in astrophysics led by Western Australian astronomers using the SKA precursor telescopes ASKAP and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), over the last decade.
- The search for the first stars 13 billion years ago, the discovery of missing matter in the Universe, and galaxy surveys of unprecedented scale feature among fundamental advances from the precursor telescopes, ready to be taken to the next level with the SKA.
- Both the Commonwealth Government and the Government of Western Australia have strongly supported the development of the SKA project over a significant period of time, and preparing Western Australian industry, particularly in our regions, for when construction starts is especially important in light of the impacts of COVID-19.
- Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, the SKA project will play a part in economic recovery, injecting hundreds of millions of much-needed dollars into the regional, Western Australian and Australian economies, as well as those of other SKA countries, over many years.
- “All West Australians can be proud that our State is going to be the home to the SKA, one of the biggest science projects in human history,” said Western Australian Minister for Science, the Hon Dave Kelly, MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly).
- “Since 2009 the WA Government has provided funding of $71 million for ICRAR to attract the SKA to Western Australia and maximize benefits for the State through research, job creation, diversification of the economy and innovation,” he said.
- “Through this investment, Western Australia has become a global hub for radio astronomy.”
- Professor Steven Tingay said Western Australia had placed itself at the forefront of international scientific research, including the readiness of Western Australian industry.
- “We are looking forward to commencing SKA construction, along with our international partners, between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia via ICRAR, with CSIRO as Australia’s SKA host organization, with our Western Australian industry partners, and with the SKA Observatory in the UK,” he said.
• June 2, 2020: Astronomers have peered into the home galaxies of fast radio bursts, ruling out supermassive black holes as a cause and bringing us a step closer to understanding the origins of these mysterious signals from outer space. - Fast radio bursts – the hottest topic in astronomy right now – were first detected in 2007, but astronomers are still working out what could make such a brief signal appear so bright. In just a millisecond, a single burst releases more energy than our Sun emits in 80 years. 54)
Figure 48: CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope in Western Australia detected the precise location of four fast radio bursts. Follow-up observations by NRAO's JVLA (Jansky Very Large Array) and CSIRO's ATCA (Australia Telescope Compact Array) radio telescopes and the world's largest optical telescopes – Gemini South, ESO’s VLT (Very Large Telescope), Magellan Baade, Keck and LCOGT-1m – identified and imaged the host galaxies (image credit: CSIRO/Sam Moorfield)
- Now Dr Shivani Bhandari, an astronomer with CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, has made a key breakthrough by zooming in on the precise location of four fast radio bursts and having a look around their ‘neighborhoods’. Dr Bhandari led the research published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. 55)
- “Just like doing video calls with colleagues shows you their homes and gives you a bit of an insight into their lives, looking into the host galaxies of fast radio bursts gives us insights to their origins.”
- Using a specially designed transient detector on CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope in outback Western Australia, Dr Bhandari and her team found the exact location of four fast radio bursts.
- “These precisely localized fast radio bursts came from the outskirts of their home galaxies, removing the possibility that they have anything to do with supermassive black holes,” Dr Bhandari said.
- This first detailed study of the galaxies that host fast radio bursts rules out several of the more extreme theories put forward to explain their origins, getting us closer to knowing their true nature.
- Co-author CSIRO’s Professor Elaine Sadler said these fast radio bursts could not have come from a super-luminous stellar explosion, or from cosmic strings.
- “Models such as mergers of compact objects like white dwarfs or neutron stars, or flares from magnetars created by such mergers, are still looking good,” Professor Sadler said.
- Follow-up observations with the world’s largest optical telescopes – Gemini South, ESO’s Very Large Telescope, Magellan Baade, Keck, and LCOGT-1m (Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network) – identified, imaged and found the distances to the host galaxies.
- Investigating if fast radio bursts favor a certain type of galaxy, the researchers found all four bursts came from massive galaxies that are forming new stars at a modest rate, very similar to our own Milky Way galaxy.
- Dr J. Xavier Prochaska of the University of California, Santa Cruz, co-led the team responsible for the optical observations. “Major advances for other transient events have been made by studying their home galaxies. We are optimistic that studies like ours will be just as vital,” Dr Prochaska said.
- Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who as a postgraduate student in 1967 was the first to detect rapidly spinning neutron stars now known as ‘pulsars’, praised the research.
- “Positioning the sources of fast radio bursts is a huge technical achievement, and moves the field on enormously,” Dame Jocelyn said. “We may not yet be clear exactly what is going on, but now, at last, options are being ruled out. This is a highly significant paper, thoroughly researched and well written.”
- ASKAP is located at CSIRO's Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) and is a precursor to the future Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescope.
- When built, the SKA will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world and is expected to revolutionize our understanding of the Universe.
- CSIRO acknowledges the Wajarri Yamatji as the traditional owners of the MRO site.
• May 27, 2020: Astronomers have used mysterious fast radio bursts to solve a decades-old mystery of ‘missing matter’, long predicted to exist in the Universe but never detected—until now. 56)
- The researchers have now found all of the missing ‘normal’ matter in the vast space between stars and galaxies, as detailed today in the journal Nature. 57)
- Lead author Associate Professor Jean-Pierre Macquart, from the Curtin University node of the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said astronomers have been searching for the missing matter for almost thirty years.
- “We know from measurements of the Big Bang how much matter there was in the beginning of the Universe,” he said. “But when we looked out into the present Universe, we couldn’t find half of what should be there. It was a bit of an embarrassment.”
- “Intergalactic space is very sparse,” he said. “The missing matter was equivalent to only one or two atoms in a room the size of an average office.”
- “So it was very hard to detect this matter using traditional techniques and telescopes.”
- The researchers were able to directly detect the missing matter using the phenomenon known as fast radio bursts—brief flashes of energy that appear to come from random directions in the sky and last for just milliseconds.
- Scientists don’t yet know what causes them but it must involve incredible energy, equivalent to the amount released by the Sun in 80 years. They have been difficult to detect as astronomers don’t know when and where to look for them.
- Associate Professor Ryan Shannon, another co-author from Swinburne University of Technology, said the key was the telescope used, CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope.
- “ASKAP both has a wide field of view, about 60 times the size of the full Moon, and can image in high resolution,” he said. “This means that we can catch the bursts with relative ease and then pinpoint locations to their host galaxies with incredible precision.”
- “When the burst arrives at the telescope, it records a live action replay within a fraction of a second,” said Dr Keith Bannister from Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, who designed the pulse capture system used in this research.
- “This enables the precision to determine the location of the fast radio burst to the width of a human hair held 200 m away,” he said.
- Associate Professor Macquart said the research team had also pinned down the relationship between how far away a fast radio burst is and how the burst spreads out as it travels through the Universe.
- “We’ve discovered the equivalent of the Hubble-Lemaitre Law for galaxies, only for fast radio bursts,” he said.
- “The Hubble-Lemaitre Law, which says the more distant a galaxy from us, the faster it is moving away from us, underpins all measurements of galaxies at cosmological distances.”
- The fast radio bursts used in the study were discovered using ASKAP, which is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in outback Western Australia. The international team involved in the discovery included astronomers from Australia, the United States and Chile.
- ASKAP is a precursor for the future Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescope. The SKA could observe large numbers of fast radio bursts, giving astronomers greater capability to study the previously invisible structure in the Universe.
Figure 49: CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope measures the delay between the wavelengths of a fast radio burst, allowing astronomers to calculate the density of the missing matter in the Universe (image credit: ICRAR and CSIRO/Alex Cherney)
• June 28, 2019: In a world first, an Australian-led international team of astronomers has determined the precise location of a powerful one-off burst of cosmic radio waves. 58)
- The discovery was made with CSIRO's new ASKAP (Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder) radio telescope in Western Australia.
- The galaxy from which the burst originated was then imaged by three of the world's largest optical telescopes – Keck, Gemini South and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope – and the results were published online by the journal Science today. 59)
- "This is the big breakthrough that the field has been waiting for since astronomers discovered fast radio bursts in 2007," CSIRO lead author Dr Keith Bannister said.
- In the 12 years since then, a global hunt has netted 85 of these bursts. Most have been 'one-offs' but a small fraction are 'repeaters' that recur in the same location.
- In 2017 astronomers found a repeater's home galaxy but localizing a one-off burst has been much more challenging.
- Fast radio bursts last less than a millisecond, making it difficult to accurately determine where they have come from.
- Dr Bannister's team developed new technology to freeze and save ASKAP data less than a second after a burst arrives at the telescope.
- This technology was used to pinpoint the location of FRB (Fast Radio Burst) 180924 to its home galaxy (DES J214425.25−405400.81). The team made a high-resolution map showing that the burst originated in the outskirts of a Milky Way-sized galaxy about 3.6 billion light-years away.
- "If we were to stand on the Moon and look down at the Earth with this precision, we would be able to tell not only which city the burst came from, but which postcode – and even which city block," Keith Bannister said.
- ASKAP is an array of multiple dish antennas and the burst had to travel a different distance to each dish, reaching them all at a slightly different time.
- "From these tiny time differences – just a fraction of a billionth of a second – we identified the burst's home galaxy and even its exact starting point, 13,000 light-years out from the galaxy's center in the galactic suburbs," team member Dr Adam Deller of Swinburne University of Technology said.
- To find out more about the home galaxy, the team imaged it with the European Southern Observatory's 8 m VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Chile and measured its distance with the 10 m Keck telescope in Hawai'i and the 8 m Gemini South telescope in Chile.
- The only previously localized burst, the 'repeater' is coming from a very tiny galaxy that is forming lots of stars.
- "The burst we localized and its host galaxy look nothing like the 'repeater' and its host," Adam Deller said. "It comes from a massive galaxy that is forming relatively few stars. This suggests that fast radio bursts can be produced in a variety of environments, or that the seemingly one-off bursts detected so far by ASKAP are generated by a different mechanism to the repeater."
- The cause of fast radio bursts remains unknown but the ability to determine their exact location is a big leap towards solving this mystery.
- Team member Dr Jean-Pierre Macquart (Curtin University node of the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR)) is an expert on using fast radio bursts to probe the Universe. "These bursts are altered by the matter they encounter in space," Macquart said.
- The localization of the radio burst was done as part of a project using ASKAP called CRAFT (Commensal Real-time ASKAP Fast Transients) that is jointly led by Keith Bannister, Jean-Pierre Macquart and Ryan Shannon of Swinburne University of Technology.
Figure 50: Artist’s impression of CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope finding a fast radio burst and determining its precise location. The KECK, VLT and Gemini South optical telescopes joined ASKAP with follow-up observations to image the host galaxy (image credit: CSIRO, Andrew Howells)
• February 26, 2019: The SKA will explore the Universe in unprecedented detail, doing so hundreds of times faster than any current facility. 60)
Figure 51: A team of Australian engineers and scientists has designed the local infrastructure for the world’s largest radio telescope – the SKA (Square Kilometer Array) – taking the billion-dollar global project one step closer to reality (video credit: CSIRO)
- The SKA Infrastructure Australia consortium, led by CSIRO – Australia's national science agency – and industry partner Aurecon Australia, has designed everything from supercomputing facilities, buildings, site monitoring and roads, to the power and data fiber distribution that will be needed to host the instrument at CSIRO's Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in remote Western Australia.
- The project has presented unique technical challenges.
- "We're setting the groundwork to host 132,000 low-frequency SKA antennas in Australia. These will receive staggering amounts of data," CSIRO's SKA Infrastructure Consortium Director, Antony Schinckel said. ”The data flows will be on the scale of petabit/s (1015 bit/s) – more than the global internet rate today, all flowing into a single building in the Murchison. To get this data from the antennas to the telescope's custom supercomputing facilities we need to lay 65,000 fiber optic cables."
- CSIRO and Aurecon engineers drew on their experience working together on the infrastructure design for the Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope, CSIRO's 36-dish radio telescope that is already operating at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.
- Aurecon's Senior Project Engineer, Shandip Abeywickrema, said the design team's biggest challenge was minimizing radio 'noise' created by the systems placed at the high-tech astronomy observatory.
- This is essential to avoid drowning out the faint signals from space that the telescope is designed to detect.
- "Containing the interference created by our own computing and power systems is an unusual construction requirement," Mr Abeywickrema said. "We're trying to reduce the level of radio emissions by factors of billions. For example, the custom supercomputing building is effectively a fully welded box within a box, with the computing equipment to be located within the inner shield, while support plant equipment will be located in the outer shield."
- Australian SKA Director, David Luchetti said that while the CSIRO-Aurecon team has been working on the infrastructure designs for Australia, a second consortium had designed the infrastructure for the South African SKA site.
- "CSIRO and Aurecon have delivered world-class designs, and the collaboration between the Australian and South African infrastructure consortia is a great example of the massive global effort behind the SKA project," Mr Luchetti said. "Infrastructure isn't usually seen as an arena for innovation, but this project has produced innovative designs, in Australia, which may have applications beyond astronomy. In addition to the incredible scientific potential of this project, we expect that the SKA will generate many spin-off benefits that we can’t yet anticipate. We want to make sure Australia is best placed to capture these benefits."
- This design work was funded by the Australian Government and the European Union.
- The Infrastructure Australia group, and counterparts designing SKA infrastructure in co-host country South Africa, are among 12 international engineering consortia each designing specific elements of the SKA.
- These consortia represent 500 engineers and scientists in 20 countries.
- Once all the design packages are complete and approved, a critical design review for the entire SKA system will take place ahead of a construction proposal being developed.
- Construction is expected to begin in 2020.
• October 30, 2018: Astronomers from ANU (Australian National University), Canberra, and CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) have witnessed, in the finest detail ever, the slow death of a neighboring dwarf galaxy, which is gradually losing its power to form stars. 61)
- The new peer62)-reviewed study of the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), which is a tiny fraction of the size and mass of the Milky Way galaxy, uses images taken with CSIRO's powerful Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope. 63)
- Lead researcher Professor Naomi McClure-Griffiths from ANU said the features of the radio images were more than three times finer than previous SMC images, which allowed the team to probe the interactions between the small galaxy and its environment with more accuracy. ”We were able to observe a powerful outflow of hydrogen gas from the Small Magellanic Cloud," said McClure-Griffiths. "The implication is the galaxy may eventually stop being able to form new stars if it loses all of its gas. Galaxies that stop forming stars gradually fade away into oblivion. It's sort of a slow death for a galaxy if it loses all of its gas."
- The discovery, which is part of a project that investigates the evolution of galaxies, provided the first clear observational measurement of the amount of mass lost from a dwarf galaxy. "The result is also important because it provides a possible source of gas for the enormous Magellanic Stream that encircles the Milky Way. Ultimately, the Small Magellanic Cloud is likely to eventually be gobbled up by our Milky Way,” according to Naomi McClure-Griffiths.
- CSIRO co-researcher Dr David McConnell said ”ASKAP is unrivalled in the world for this kind of research due to its unique radio receivers that give it a panoramic view of the sky. The telescope covered the entire SMC galaxy in a single shot and photographed its hydrogen gas with unprecedented detail.
- Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe, and is the main ingredient of stars.
- "ASKAP will go on to make state-of-the-art pictures of hydrogen gas in our own Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds, providing a full understanding of how this dwarf system is merging with our own galaxy and what this teaches us about the evolution of other galaxies," Dr McConnell said.
- ASKAP’s extremely large field of view is what makes it a uniquely powerful survey instrument. The telescope uses new technology developed by CSIRO - a kind of “radio camera”, known as a phased array feed (PAF) that sits at the focus of each of its antennas. We are currently commissioning the telescope and running Early Science observations using up to 16 of ASKAP's 36 antennas. To demonstrate ASKAP's emerging capability as more antennas come on-line, the GASKAP Survey Science Team recently produced this image of the Small Magellanic Cloud. It shows us the tangled web of gas that makes up our neighbouring galaxy and it reveals the galaxy’s vibrant history, including streams of gas reeled in by the gravitational pull of the Milky Way and billowing voids generated by massive stars that exploded millions of years ago.
- The new image shows that the Small Magellanic Cloud has had “a very dynamic past”, according to Professor McClure-Griffiths from the ANU (Australian National University, Canberra, Australia) Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, who jointly led the work with Professor John Dickey of the University of Tasmania.
- What’s amazing about this image is that it was made in one shot with the ‘wide-angle’ camera of ASKAP. To do this with traditional technology we had to point the telescope in 1,344 different places across the face of the Galaxy and that project required five observing runs over 15 months. By contrast, to make the new image, ASKAP took just three nights . Data from CSIRO’s Parkes radio-telescope was added to pick up the faint diffuse emission which is essential for understanding the Galaxy as a whole.
- This new image of Figure 52 is a demonstration of how astronomers will be able to use ASKAP's new technology to map the Universe and improve our understanding of how the Universe works.
- The Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that is a satellite of our Milky Way Galaxy, is located about 210,000 light-years away in the southern constellation of Tucana. It has a complex structure due to gravitational interaction with the Milky Way and the Large Magellanic Cloud. The new radio image of the Small Magellanic Cloud was created as part of a survey that aims to study the evolution of galaxies.
- According to Professor McClure-Griffiths and colleagues, the new image finally reaches the same level of detail as infrared images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and ESA’s Herschel telescope, but on a very different component of the galaxy’s make-up — its hydrogen gas.
- “Hydrogen is the fundamental building block of all galaxies and shows off the more extended structure of a galaxy than its stars and dust,” Professor McClure-Griffiths said.
Figure 52: Atomic hydrogen gas in the Small Magellanic Cloud as imaged with CSIRO’s ASKAP at MRO in 2017 (image credit: ANU and CSIRO)
• June 2018: The culmination of the early science program on ASKAP Array Release 2 is a large-area survey dubbed the cosmology survey, as it is intended to test the idea that key parameters of our cosmological models (our understanding of how the universe formed and expanded to the state we find it in today) can be improved by studying the statistical properties of large numbers of galaxies. 66)
- This survey uses 16 antennas and covers roughly 2000 square degrees, divided into 68 tiled locations that we observe for 200 minutes each. We used a center frequency of 912 MHz and 240 MHz of bandwidth to make the following image from a single beam (roughly 1/36th of ASKAP's full field of view) of one of the first observed regions, showing hundreds of galaxies and several sources with interesting extended structure.
Figure 53: The ASKAP continuum science working group have been using this small area of the survey to tune the ASKAP imaging pipeline parameters in order to optimize the quality of the image before processing the rest of the data and completing the remaining observations.
• May 24, 2018: A complete prototype station of antennas for the future SKA-low telescope has been completed and is being tested at the SKA site in Western Australia. 67)
- In an important engineering milestone, a full station of 256 low-frequency antennas has been deployed and is undergoing tests at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in outback Western Australia.
- The demonstrator, known as the AAVS1 (Aperture Array Verification System 1) is being used to help test and finalise the design of the low frequency antennas for the SKA (Square Kilometer Array), known as SKA-low.
- It was installed by an international team from Australia, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom over many months, sometimes in harsh conditions.
- “This is a significant achievement by the team, they have done a fantastic job. We have been thinking, discussing and designing together for several years. Putting together and testing this verification system has been an amazing experience.” said AAVS1 Project Manager Pieter Benthem. Benthem is based at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON), the institute that leads the consortium working on the design of the SKA-low telescope.
- The consortium focusing on SKA-low is now working towards its critical design review later this year.
Figure 54: A full station of 256 antennas at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in outback Western Australia. The demonstrator is used to help test and finalize the design of the low frequency antennas for the SKA (image credit: ICRAR/Curtin University)
- “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the lessons we’ve learnt from AAVS1 will be fed into the larger design process for SKA-low” said ICRAR (International Center for Radio Astronomy Research) Associate Professor Randall Wayth.
- “The antennas used for AAVS1 are what we call second generation prototypes. The tests now being conducted on them are helping predict how the fourth generation will behave. It’s all about making sure we get the best possible hardware on site at the end” explains Phil Gibbs, SKA Organisation’s Project Manager for the consortium. - “The next steps will be to complete the tests, interpret the results so they can feed into the proposed design for the SKA low telescope and prepare for the critical design review, which is anticipated to take place later this year” he added.
- AAVS1 is in the process of being connected to the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), one of the four SKA precursor telescopes, which has been operational since 2013. By combining the data of the demonstrator with the MWA, the engineers will be able to fully characterise its on-sky performance.
- Both AAVS1 and MWA have been heavily supported by scientists, engineers and data-intensive astronomy specialists from ICRAR in Perth, Western Australia.
- About the LFAA consortium: The LFAA (Low-Frequency Aperture Array) element is the set of antennas, on-board amplifiers and local processing required for the Aperture Array telescope of the SKA.
- The LFAA consortium is led by the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) and includes the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), Australia; the Key Lab of Aperture Array and Space Application (KLAASA), China; the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), Italy; the University of Malta; the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE), the Netherlands; the University of Cambridge, UK; the University of Manchester, UK; the University of Oxford, UK; the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), UK; Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, France; and Station de Radioastronomie de Nançay, France.
• February 2018: Position offset solution confirmed: The ASKAP project has now confirmation that images made after last year’s changes to the delay tracking system are consistent with existing source catalogs (Figure 55). This gives us much more confidence in the system as we continue to develop the fringe rotation module. 68)
- Fringe rotator system commissioning: One of the primary goals right now is the completion and integration of our final fringe tracking system. This should remove a major performance bottleneck in the ingest pipeline and reduce the number of visibilities that need to be flagged.
- Testing of the new CALC-based delay prediction system is well underway on a partial hardware platform in the Marsfield workshop. Low-level tests of the accuracy of the delay tracking firmware have been completed, revealing some problems in the existing software interface that are being addressed before the commencement of tests on the full system using astronomical sources.
- Two major workshop sessions across several engineering teams were held to discuss the timing of the fringe rotator parameter uploads in detail. It is important to ensure that these occur on correlator cycle boundaries to avoid the need for flagging. This discussion also identified a possible improvement in the way that timed events are distributed throughout the digital system. This might reduce the amount of low-level jitter and help improve the dynamic range of the system in the long term.
- Storm monitoring at the MRO: Since ASKAP is expected to be a remotely-operated instrument system, it is important to ensure that its control system has good situational awareness – particularly with respect to severe thunderstorms which can develop rapidly.
- While we have had wind speed monitoring for some time, the MRO covers a large area, where individual anemometer measurements do not provide adequate surveillance. Passing severe weather can trigger microbursts and strong wind gusts that develop more quickly than the antennas can be stowed. Anemometers alone are therefore not good enough to ensure the safety of the telescope.
- CSIRO staff member Balthasar Indermühle recently developed a severe weather protection system based on quasi-realtime satellite data capable of detecting severe convective cells and using other meteorological metrics to accurately predict and observe the approach of potentially harmful conditions. This will help to ensure the safety of both hardware and personnel.
Figure 55: Plot of source position offsets with respect to NVSS (NRAO/VLA Sky Survey) from a recent ASKAP image after delay tracking improvements (image credit: ATNF, CSIRO)
• September 18, 2017: EMU (Evolutionary May of the Universe): EMU is a large project which will use the new ASKAP telescope to make a census of radio sources in the sky. We currently know of about 2.5 million radio sources, and EMU will detect about 70 million. Most of these radio sources will be galaxies millions of light years away, many containing massive black holes, and some of the signals we detect will have been sent less than half a billion years after the Big Bang, which created the Universe 13.7 billion years ago. The reason for doing this is to try to understand how the stars and galaxies were first formed, and how they evolved to their present state, where planets and people are formed. The idea of doing this census is so that we can catch galaxies in all their different stages of evolution, and try to place them in sequence, and so study how their properties change as they evolve. 69) 70)
- All radio data from the survey will be placed in the public domain as soon the data quality has been checked. An integral part of the proposed project will be to perform identifications with other wavelengths, and produce catalogs of these and other “added-value” data products.
- EMU is a radio sky survey project which will use the new ASKAP telescope to make a deep (10 µJy rms) radio continuum survey covering the entire Southern Sky as far North as 30°. It can be characterized as a “Southern NVSS”, except that it will have about 40 times the sensitivity, six times the resolution and will detect 70 million galaxies. As a result, it will be able to probe star forming galaxies up to z=1, AGNs to the edge of the Universe, and will undoubtedly uncover new classes of object. 71)
• May 23, 2017: A CSIRO telescope in Western Australia has found its first 'fast radio burst' from space after less than four days of searching. The discovery came so quickly that the telescope, the ASKAP (Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder) near Geraldton in Western Australia, looks set to become a world champion in this fiercely competitive area of astronomy. 72)
- The new fast radio burst finding was published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. 73)
- FBRs (Fast Radio Bursts) are short, sharp spikes of radio waves lasting a few milliseconds. They appear to come from powerful events billions of light-years away but their cause is still a mystery. The first was discovered in 2007 and only two dozen have been found since.
- The discovery of the new burst, FRB170107, was made by CSIRO's Keith Bannister and his colleagues from CSIRO, Curtin University and ICRAR (International Center for Radio Astronomy Research ) while using just eight of the telescope's 36 dishes. The discovery is the culmination of a decade of science and engineering development by CSIRO and Curtin University.
- "We can expect to find one every two days when we use 12 dishes, our standard number at present," Dr Bannister said. To make the most recent detection, the researchers used an unusual strategy.
- “We turned the telescope into the Sauron of space – the all-seeing eye,” Dr Bannister said, referring to the dark overlord in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”.
- Usually ASKAP’s dishes all point at the one part of sky. But they can be made to point in slightly different directions, like the segments of a fly’s eye. This multiplies the amount of sky the telescope can see. Eight ASKAP dishes can see 240º x 240º at once – about a thousand times the area of the full Moon.
- The new burst was found as part of a research project called CRAFT (Commensal Real-time ASKAP Fast Transients survey), which is led jointly by Dr Bannister and Dr Jean-Pierre Macquart from the Curtin University node of ICRAR. Dr Macquart said the new burst was extremely bright and that finding it was “as easy as shooting fish in a barrel”.
- FRB170107 came from the edge of the constellation Leo. It appears to have travelled through space for six billion years before slamming into the WA (Western Australian) telescope at the speed of light.
- FRB170107 came from the edge of the constellation Leo. It appears to have travelled through space for six billion years before slamming into the WA telescope at the speed of light. “We’ve made a hard problem even harder,” said Dr Ryan Shannon (CSIRO, Curtin University and ICRAR), who analyzed the burst’s strength and position.
- CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said the FRB detection was a sign of the full potential of ASKAP. “Radio astronomy has a long history of innovation in high-speed communications, and this unique capability is embedded into ASKAP – from the receiver to the signal processing – making it a uniquely powerful instrument for astronomy,” Dr Marshall said.
Figure 56: The signal of FRB 170107, found using CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope in less than four days of looking (image credit: CSIRO (Ref. 73)
Figure 57: The ASKAP telescope pathfinder in Western Australia (image credit: CSIRO)
• January 16, 2017: ASKAP is made of 36 identical 12 m wide dish antennas that all work together, 12 of which are currently in operation. Thirty ASKAP antennas have now been fitted with specialized phased array feeds, the rest will be installed later in 2017. 74)
- Until now, the project had been taking data mainly to test how ASKAP performs. Having shown the telescope’s technical excellence it’s now off on its big trip, starting to make observations for the big science projects it’ll be doing for the next five years.
- And it’s taking lots of data. Its antennas are now churning out 5.2 TB/s of data (about 15 per cent of the internet’s current data rate).
- Once out of the telescope, the data is going through a new, almost automatic data-processing system we’ve developed.
- The first project we’ve been taking data for is one of ASKAP’s largest surveys, WALLABY (Widefield ASKAP L-band Legacy All-sky Blind surveY).
- On board the survey are a happy band of 100-plus scientists – affectionately known as the WALLABIES – from many countries, led by one of our astronomers, Bärbel Koribalski, and Lister Staveley-Smith of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), University of Western Australia.
- They’re aiming to detect and measure neutral hydrogen gas in galaxies over three-quarters of the sky. To see the farthest of these galaxies they’ll be looking three billion years back into the universe’s past, with a redshift of 0.26.
Figure 58: Neutral hydrogen gas in one of the galaxies, IC 5201 in the southern constellation of Grus (The Crane), imaged in early observations for the WALLABY project (image credit: CSIRO, Matthew Whiting, Karen Lee-Waddell and Bärbel Koribalski, all of WALLABY)
- Neutral hydrogen – just lonely individual hydrogen atoms floating around – is the basic form of matter in the universe. Galaxies are made up of stars but also dark matter, dust and gas – mostly hydrogen. Some of the hydrogen turns into stars.
- Although the universe has been busy making stars for most of its 13.7-billion-year life, there’s still a fair bit of neutral hydrogen around. In the nearby (low-redshift) universe, most of it hangs out in galaxies. So mapping the neutral hydrogen is a useful way to map the galaxies, which isn’t always easy to do with just starlight.
- But as well as mapping where the galaxies are, we want to know how they live their lives, get on with their neighbors, grow and change over time.
- When galaxies live together in big groups and clusters they steal gas from each other, a processes called accretion and stripping. Seeing how the hydrogen gas is disturbed or missing tells us what the galaxies have been up to.
- We can also use the hydrogen signal to work out a lot of a galaxy’s individual characteristics, such as its distance, how much gas it contains, its total mass, and how much dark matter it contains. This information is often used in combination with characteristics we learn from studying the light of the galaxy’s stars.
- ASKAP sees large pieces of sky with a field of view of 30º x 30 º. The WALLABY team will observe 1,200 of these fields. Each field contains about 500 galaxies detectable in neutral hydrogen, giving a total of 600,000 galaxies.
Figure 59: One of the first fields targeted by WALLABY, the NGC 7232 galaxy group. This image of the NGC 7232 galaxy group was made with just two nights’ worth of data (image credit: Ian Heywood (CSIRO); WALLABY team)
- ASKAP has now made 150 hours of observations of this field, which has been found to contain 2,300 radio sources (the white dots), almost all of them galaxies.
- It has also observed a second field, one containing the Fornax cluster of galaxies, and started on two more fields over the Christmas and New Year period.
• The ASKAP Early Science Program started in October 2016 using an array of 12 antennas (Ref. 37).
• April 10, 2014: The ASKAP team has this week produced the first BETA spectral line image using six ASKAP antennas installed with innovative PAF (Phased Array Feed) receiver systems, as part of ongoing commissioning tests at the MRO (Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory) in Western Australia. 75)
- ASKAP is one of two Australian SKA precursor telescopes. It forms part of the Australia Telescope National Facility or ATNF, a collection of radio astronomy observatories operated and managed by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.
- This milestone is quite significant for the ASKAP project – particularly in terms of the technical implications of demonstrating the success of the design of the system.
Figure 60: With the recently reconfigured hardware correlator and the six-antenna test array known as the Boolardy Engineering Test Array (BETA), an observation was made with up to six hours of data collected and analyzed to create the first spectral line image, and data cube, with the ASKAP system (image credit: ATNF,CSIRO)
- The chosen target was the strong gravitational lens system PKS1830-211, used in previous commissioning tests with the ASKAP system because of the strong HI absorption feature at a redshift of z=0.88, or 753 MHz. This feature also makes the source an ideal target for BETA, which is one of just a few telescopes capable of such an observation at this frequency.
- The resulting image is the first to incorporate all 15 baselines from the BETA system, and also the first to be made with the array's full spectral resolution of 18 kHz. While still quite preliminary, the accompanying spectrum is of particular interest to the team.
- Close comparison with spectra previously taken with the Westerbork radio telescope at a similar resolution has shown a second feature which appears more pronounced in the new BETA spectrum than previously seen, indicating an interesting opportunity for scientific follow up.
Figure 61: Discovering the unknown: the world's largest radio telescope. What did the Universe look like when the first galaxies formed? What is dark matter? And is there life out there? These are some of the big questions astronomers around the world are trying to answer. But to answer them, they need a machine unlike any other. A time machine, an IT machine. Hundreds of engineers in all time zones of the world are working together, pushing technology to its limits – and in the process generating new knowledge that could improve our everyday lives – to build the largest science facility ever built by mankind and probe the deep Universe (Square Kilometer Array, Published on Aug 15, 2016. Video credit: SKA Organization Communications Office Made by Polar Media)
Africa Radio Telescope Array — or SARAO (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory)
The desert regions of South Africa, provide the perfect radio quiet backdrop for the high and medium frequency arrays that will form a critical part of the SKA’s ground-breaking continent wide telescope. 76)
South Africa is not alone in hosting components for the SKA in Africa. Eight partner countries around the African continent will also have radio telescopes contributing to the network that will provide scientists with the world’s most advanced radio astronomy array. These include Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.
South Africa is already host to the KAT7 telescope array, an important testing ground for the MeerKAT telescope array, a 64 dish system which will form a precursor to the full SKA Telescope.
In SKA Phase 1, the 64-dish MeerKAT precursor array which is currently under construction and expected to come online in a few years time will be integrated into SKA1 MID (Mid Frequency Antennas), with the construction of another 130 dishes. In total, SKA1 MID will count almost 200 dishes spread around the Karoo.
SKA1 MID will conduct observations in many exciting areas of science, such as gravitational waves, pulsars, and will search for signatures of life in the galaxy. It will provide a jump in capability, providing 4 times more resolution and 5 times more sensitivity than the JVLA (Jansky Very Large Array), the current best telescope as similar frequencies. Additionally, it will be able to map the sky 60 times faster.
Thousands of SKA antenna dishes will be built in South Africa (in the Karoo, not far from the small town called Carnarvon), with outstations in other parts of South Africa, as well as in eight African partner countries, namely Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. Another part of the telescope, the low-frequency array, will be built in Western Australia. 77)
MeerKAT Radio Telescope Array
The South African MeerKAT radio telescope, currently being built some 90 km outside the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon, is a precursor to the SKA (Square Kilometer Array) telescope and will be integrated into the mid-frequency component of SKA Phase 1. The SKA Project is an international enterprise to build the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, and will be located in Africa and Australia. 78)
Why MeerKAT? -The telescope was originally known as the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) that would consist of 20 receptors. When the South African government increased the budget to allow the building of 64 receptors, the team renamed it “MeerKAT” – i.e. “more of KAT”. The MeerKAT (scientific name Suricata suricatta) is also a much-beloved small mammal that lives in the Karoo region.
Figure 62: In 2016, more than 20 MeerKAT antennas have been installed on the SKA SA Losberg site outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape (image credit: SKA Africa)
MeerKAT is a precursor to the SKA and follows the KAT-7 telescope which was an engineering test-bed for MeerKAT. MeerKAT is funded by the South African Government and is a South African designed telescope with 75% of its value sourced locally. An important aspect of the SKA site decision in 2012 was that MeerKAT would be part of the sensitive SKA Phase 1 array, which will be the most sensitive radio telescope in the world. Upon completion at the end of 2017, MeerKAT will consist of 64 dishes and associated instrumentation. SKA 1 MID will include an additional 133 dishes, bringing the total number for SKA1 MID to 197.
• The MeerKAT telescope will be an array of 64 interlinked receptors (a receptor is the complete antenna structure, with the main reflector, sub-reflector and all receivers, digitizers and other electronics installed).
• The configuration (placement) of the receptors is determined by the science objectives of the telescope.
• 48 of the receptors are concentrated in the core area which is approximately 1 km in diameter.
• The longest distance between any two receptors (the so-called maximum baseline) is 8 km.
• Each MeerKAT receptor consists of three main components:
1) The antenna positioner, which is a steerable dish on a pedestal
2) A set of radio receivers
3) A set of associated digitizers.
• The antenna positioner is made up of the 13.5 m effective diameter main reflector, and a 3.8 m diameter sub-reflector. In this design, referred to as an ‘Offset Gregorian’ optical layout, there are no struts in the way to block or interrupt incoming electromagnetic signals. This ensures excellent optical performance, sensitivity and imaging quality, as well as good rejection of unwanted radio frequency interference from orbiting satellites and terrestrial radio transmitters. It also enables the installation of multiple receiver systems in the primary and secondary focal areas, and provides a number of other operational advantages.
• The combined surface accuracy of the two reflectors is extremely high with a deviation from the ideal shape being no more than 0.6 mm RMS (root mean square). The main reflector surface is made up of 40 aluminum panels mounted on a steel support framework.
• This framework is mounted on top of a yoke, which is in turn mounted on top of a pedestal. The combined height of the pedestal and yoke is just over 8 m. The height of the total structure is 19.5 m with a mass of 42 tons.
• The pedestal houses the antenna’s pointing control system.
• Mounted at the top of the pedestal, beneath the yoke, are an azimuth drive and a geared azimuth bearing, which allow the main and sub-reflectors, together with the receiver indexer, to be rotated horizontally. The yoke houses the azimuth wrap, which guides all the cables when the antenna is rotated, and prevents them from becoming entangled or damaged. The structure allows an observation elevation range from 15 to 88 degrees, and an azimuth range from -185 degrees to +275 degrees, where north is at zero degrees.
• The steerable antenna positioner can point the main reflector very accurately, to within 5 arcseconds (1.4 thousandths of a degree) under low-wind and night-time observing conditions, and to within 25 arcseconds (7 thousandths of a degree) during normal operational conditions.
About MeerKAT – how it works:
• Electromagnetic waves from cosmic radio sources bounce off the main reflector, then off the sub-reflector, and are then focused in the feed horn, which is part of the receiver.
• Each receptor can accommodate up to four receivers and digitizers mounted on the receiver indexer. The indexer is a rotating support structure that allows the appropriate receiver to be automatically moved into the antenna focus position, depending on the desired observation frequency.
• The main function of the receiver is to capture the electromagnetic radiation and convert it to an voltage signal that is then amplified by cryogenic receivers that add very little noise to the signal. The first two receivers will be the L-band and UHF-band receivers.
• Four digitizers will be mounted on the receiver indexer, close to the associated receivers. The function of the four digitizers is to convert the RF (Radio Frequency) voltage signal from the receiver into digital signals. This conversion is done by using an electronic component called an ADC (Analog to Digital Converter). The L-band digitizer samples at a rate of 1712 million samples every second. (The amount of data that is generated by the digitizer for a receiver is equivalent to approximately 73,000 DVDs every day or almost 1 DVD/s).
• Once the signal is converted to digital data, the digitizer sends this data via buried fiber optic cables to the correlator, which is situated inside the KAPB (Karoo Array Processor Building) at the Losberg site complex.
• A total of 170 km of buried fiber cables connect the receptors to the KAPB, with the maximum length between the KAPB and a single antenna being 12 km.
• The fiber cables run inside conduits buried 1 m below the ground for thermal stability.
• At the KAPB, the signals undergo various stages of digital processing, such as correlation – which combines all the signals from all the receptors to form an image of the area of the sky to which the antennas are pointing – and beam-forming, which coherently adds the signals from all the receptors to form a number of narrow, high sensitivity beams used for pulsar science. The science data products are also archived at the KAPB with a portion of the science archive data moved off site via fiber connection and stored in Cape Town (with possibilities of reprocessing the data).
• Time and frequency reference signals are distributed, via buried optical fibers, to every digitizer on every receptor, so that they are all synchronized to the same clock. This is important to properly align the signals from all receptors.
• The control and monitoring system is responsible for monitoring the health of the telescope and for controlling it to do what the operators want it to do. A large number of internal sensors (more than 150 000) monitor everything from electronic component temperatures to weather conditions and power consumption.
Table 2: MeerKAT technical specifications
Figure 63: Photo of a MeerKAT antenna: Total height = 19.5 m, total mass of the structure = 42 tons (image credit: SKA Africa)
Some background on MeerKAT:
• The location of the MeerKAT, which will form the core of the bigger SKA telescope, has been carefully chosen to host a radio astronomy instrument for its attractiveness as an excellent radio frequency protected zone and the site continues to attract international collaborations. The Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA) and its predecessor, the Precision Array for Probing the Epoch of Re-ionization (PAPER) are excellent examples. The hosting of these instruments brings numerous economic benefits to the adjacent communities. Since activities of the SKA project started in the Northern Cape, SKA SA has made a number of positive impacts to the lives of the people of Carnarvon, Williston, Van Wyksvlei, Brandvlei, Vosburg, Loxton, Fraserburg and Calvinia. 79)
- The construction of the KAT-7, MeerKAT, the HERA and PAPER has created a total number of 7284 direct and indirect jobs. To date, R136 million has been spent at local suppliers for the construction of the above-mentioned projects.
• The desert regions of South Africa, provide the perfect radio quiet backdrop for the high and medium frequency arrays that will form a critical part of the SKA’s ground-breaking continent wide telescope. South Africa is not alone in hosting components for the SKA in Africa. Eight partner countries around the African continent will also have radio telescopes contributing to the network that will provide scientists with the world’s most advanced radio astronomy array. These include Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. 80)
- SKA 1 MID (SKA's Mid-frequency instrument) will conduct observations in many exciting areas of science, such as gravitational waves, pulsars, and will search for signatures of life in the galaxy. It will provide a jump in capability, providing 4 times more resolution and 5 times more sensitivity than the JVLA (Jansky Very Large Array) the current best telescope at similar frequencies. Additionally, it will be able to map the sky 60 times faster.
- Mid frequency aperture array antennas are currently under development and could be installed in Africa in Phase 2. The MFAA (“Mid-Frequency Aperture Array) element of the SKA, part of the SKA Advanced Instrumentation Program, includes the activities necessary for the development of a set of antennas, on board amplifiers and local processing required for the Aperture Array telescope of the SKA. MFAA includes the development of local station signal processing and hardware required to combine the antennas and the transport of antenna data to the station processing.
- “The fully sampled field-of-view, of the order of 100 square degrees, makes the SKA Mid-Frequency Aperture Array effectively a 10-gigapixel ultra wide field spectroscopic camera“, says Steve Torchinsky, member of the MFAA Consortium and astronomer at the Station de Radioastronomie de Nançay, France.
- The overriding objectives of the MFAA Consortium are to prove the technological maturity of the MFAA technology, and to evaluate different concepts of front-end technology that can serve to assist in the preliminary design of the MFAA. When a concept is selected, it will then be taken further in Stage 2 towards the preliminary design.
Figure 64: Computer generated image of what the SKA Phase 2 dish antennas will look like in South Africa (image credit: SKA Project Office)
MeerKAT development and mission status
• April 7, 2022: Using the MeerKAT radio telescope, a team of researchers from the University of the Western Cape, the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory and the South African Astronomical Observatory together with colleagues from 12 other countries have discovered a powerful megamaser – a radio-wavelength laser indicative of colliding galaxies. This is the most distant such megamaser found so far. 81)
- Galaxies are vast islands of matter in the universe. They are made of hundreds of billions of stars, gas and dark matter. When galaxies merge in collisions of cosmic proportions, the gas they contain becomes extremely dense. In particular, this can stimulate hydroxyl molecules, made of one atom of oxygen and one atom of hydrogen, to emit a specific radio signal called a maser (a maser is like a laser but emits radio waves instead of visible light). When that signal is exceedingly bright, it is called a megamaser. “When two galaxies like the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy collide, beams of light shoot out from the collision and can be seen at cosmological distances. The OH megamasers act like bright lights that say: here is a collision of galaxies that is making new stars and feeding massive black holes,” explains Prof. Jeremy Darling from the University of Colorado in the United States, a megamaser expert and co-author of the study.
- Hydroxyl megamasers emit light at a wavelength of 18cm. This light belongs to the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and it is the type of light that the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Karoo is designed to capture exceptionally well.
Figure 65: Artist’s impression of a hydroxyl maser. Inside a galaxy merger are hydroxyl molecules, composed of one atom of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. When one molecule absorbs a photon at 18 cm wavelength, it emits two photons of the same wavelength. When molecular gas is very dense, typically when two galaxies merge, this emission gets very bright and can be detected by radio telescopes such as the MeerKAT. © (image credit: IDIA/LADUMA using data from NASA/StSci/SKAO/MolView)
- The Looking at the Distant Universe with the Meerkat Array (LADUMA) team leads one of the big MeerKAT science experiments, which is looking for neutral hydrogen gas in galaxies in one area of the sky, and looking for it very deeply – meaning very far from us, both in space and in time. By measuring the neutral hydrogen gas in galaxies from the distant past to now, LADUMA will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of the universe. This is no minor exercise, and so the research team comprises scientists from South Africa, Australia, Chile, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, the UK, and the US. “LADUMA is probing hydrogen within a single ‘cosmic vuvuzela’ that extends to when the universe was only a third of its present age,” says Associate Professor Sarah Blyth from the University of Cape Town.
- To look for hydrogen, the team looks for light with a wavelength of 21 cm that has been stretched to longer wavelengths by the expansion of the universe. However, light from other atoms and molecules is also present, and in their very first observation with MeerKAT, the team detected bright emission from hydroxyl molecules that had been even more stretched from its original wavelength of 18 cm.
- Dr. Marcin Glowacki, previously a researcher at the Inter-University Institute for Data-Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) and University of the Western Cape, and now based at the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), led the investigation. He explains, “It’s impressive that in a single night of observations with MeerKAT, we already found a redshift record-breaking megamaser. The full 3000+ hour LADUMA survey will be the most sensitive of its kind.” When they saw this signal in the data coming from the telescope, and confirmed that it was coming from hydroxyl, the team realised that they had a megamaser on their hands.
- To make this discovery, the team had to run complex scientific algorithms on large amounts of data. This was made possible by the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) research cloud computing facility. This facility exists to help the South African research community do as much science as possible with the MeerKAT, and with the upcoming Square Kilometre Array in the future. Indeed, it is one thing to collect a lot of data, and another to work with it.
- Facilities like IDIA’s are imperative if astronomers are to do as much science as possible with the MeerKAT, and with the Square Kilometre Array in the future.
- Once the team knew it was a megamaser, they went on to look for its host galaxy. Where was the megamaser coming from? The patch of sky explored by the LADUMA team has been observed in X-rays, optical light and infra-red, so the team was able to easily identify the host galaxy. The team also knew that such a powerful, distant megamaser needed a good nickname, and invited members of the public to offer suggestions. The winning suggestion was “Nkalakatha,” an isiZulu word that means “big boss,” which was suggested by Zolile Tibane, a student from Johannesburg who is studying computer science at the University of the Western Cape.
- The host galaxy of “Nkalakatha” is known to have a long tail on one side, visible in radio waves. It is about 58 thousand billion billion (58 followed by 21 zeros) kilometres away, and the megamaser light was emitted about 5 billion years ago when the universe was only about two thirds of its current age. “We have already planned follow-up observations of the megamaser, and as LADUMA progresses we will make many more discoveries,” notes Dr. Glowacki.
- This is the first time a megamaser has been detected at that distance from its emission at 18cm wavelength. The authors of the study point out that it is not surprising that they found such a bright megamaser, given how powerful the MeerKAT is, but the telescope is very new, so this find hopefully is one of many more to come. “MeerKAT will probably double the known number of these rare phenomena. Galaxies were thought to merge more often in the past, and the newly discovered OH megamasers will allow us to test this hypothesis,” comments Prof. Darling.
- Radio astronomy is entering a truly exciting time with the upcoming Square Kilometre Array and its pathfinder telescopes, including MeerKAT. Unplanned discoveries are starting to emerge from the unprecedented amounts of data these instruments collect. And with MeerKAT and IDIA, South Africa is right at the cutting-edge of astronomy. 82)
• September 3, 2021: The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) has already awarded the contracts for the construction of the infrastructure required for the expansion of the country’s world-leading MeerKAT radio telescope array. Located in the Karoo region, roughly west of the Northern Cape town of Carnarvon, the array has won enthusiastic plaudits from the global astronomy and astrophysics communities because of the unprecedentedly high-resolution data it is providing, which has already led to a number of significant scientific breakthroughs, despite the fact that MeerKAT was formally inaugurated only three years ago. 83)
- Intended as a precursor to the giant international Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope, which will be split between South Africa and Australia, MeerKAT is intended to be integrated into the mid-frequency component of the SKA (known as SKA-Mid); Australia will host the low-frequency component (SKA-Low). The SKA arrays will create the most sensitive radio telescope ever built, with the Phase 1 SKA-Mid planned to have 197 dish antennas, which would include the 64 dishes of the original MeerKAT. (SKA-Low will have some 131 000 simple aerial antennas.)
- The SKA, which is controlled by the UK-based international SKA Observatory (SKAO) — of which the founder members are Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the UK; France has since joined — , entered its ‘construction phase’ last month, meaning that tenders can now be issued and contracts awarded. The SKAO has now issued expressions of interest in both South Africa and Australia; these are aimed at identifying companies that are seriously interested in bidding for work on SKA-Mid and/or SKA-Low. But many tenders will be open to enterprises based in all the SKAO member countries.
- Actual construction of both arrays is expected to start next year and be completed in 2028. The total cost of building both Phase 1 arrays, and operating them, over the period 2021 to 2030, is estimated at some €2-billion.
- But in the interim, the idea of enlarging the current MeerKAT, to increase its resolution and so scientific effectiveness, developed during discussions between South African and German scientists. These were a consequence of the establishment of close collaboration between SARAO and Germany’s Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (MPG – a non- profit research organisation with 86 research institutes and facilities, including the MPIfR (Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy); Max Planck was one of Germany’s greatest physicists, winning the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his development of quantum theory). The result was the MeerKAT Extension Project, or MeerKAT+ for short. This was agreed in principle in 2019, followed by a comprehensive scientific evaluation and technical planning. These steps were followed by the issuing of tenders earlier this year.
- The MeerKAT Extension is a project costing about R900-million which will add 20 dishes to the current 64-dish MeerKAT array. This increase will allow the maximum distance between the array’s dishes to be dramatically increased from the current 8 km to about 20 km. This will most significantly increase its sensitivity and the resolution of the radio images that it will capture. This will additionally require a tenfold increase in the telescope’s computing power. (MPG and MPIfR had previously invested some R103-million into MeerKAT, to fund a latest-technology ‘beamformer’ and high- performance computer system, to detect radio pulsars and radio transients.)
- “The extended MeerKAT will increase the raw sensitivity of the instruments by about 50%, a move that will enable the telescope to survey the sky faster, and also enable it to detect even [the] faintest astronomical sources,” affirmed the then CEO of South Africa’s National Research Foundation Dr Molapo Qhobela, last September. Speaking on the same date, MPG president Professor Martin Stratmann said: “I am impressed [with] what has been achieved with the MeerKAT telescope and we are proud to collaborate with our South African colleagues in the extension of the project.”
- Originally, the South African and German partners would each contribute some R400-million (in cash and in kind) to the project. SARAO was responsible for creating the site infrastructure, the detectors and the cryogenic cooling systems (both mounted on the dishes), and the data processing equipment. MPG was responsible for the additional dish antennas, detector instrumentation, as well as the data collecting and analysis systems.
- Last December, the project received a further boost when Italy’s Instituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF – National Institute of Astrophysics) joined it. INAF is contributing a further R100-million or so, which will largely be used to support the development of the new dishes by MPG. But INAF will also help SARAO develop the dish control software.
- “The fact that MeerKAT is attracting international investment and the science results that are being delivered by MeerKAT is testament to its claim of being the most sensitive radio telescope in [the] L-[radio frequency]band in the world,” highlighted SARAO engineering GM Willem Esterhyse to Engineering News & Mining Weekly. “Infrastructure work has been contracted to the COP Consortium, consisting of Concor Infrastructure ([a] division of Concor Construction (Pty) Ltd) and Optipower ([a] division of Murray & Roberts). The scope of infrastructure work is the extension of power and fibre networks, roads and foundations for the additional antennas. Construction will start early in 2022 with the goal of having the foundations completed towards July 2022. The receivers will be an extension of receivers that are used in the MeerKAT telescope. There will be receivers that will operate in L-band (from 0.95 GHz to 1.76 GHz) and S-band receivers (1.7 GHz to 3.5 GHz). EMSS Antennas (Pty) Ltd has been contracted to provide the L-band receivers, while the S-band receivers are part of the MPG in-kind contribution to the contract.”
- As previously mentioned, MPG (supported by INAF) has responsibility for the dishes. The production readiness review for these is expected to be completed by the middle of next year. Manufacture of the dishes would start immediately thereafter and their erection on site would start late next year and be completed in 2023. Responses to the tender for the helium cooling system for the Low Noise Amplifiers (in the receivers) were currently being evaluated.
Science: MeerKAT and SKA
- The original MeerKAT has already racked up an impressive record of discoveries and unprecedented observations, made by international teams of astronomers and astrophysicists. These have included the discovery of vast amounts of ‘missing’ gas in the galaxy NGC 1316 (the gas was ‘missing’ because, before MeerKAT, it could not be detected). Another achievement was the discovery of giant radio ‘bubbles’ in the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Then there was the tracking of the radiowave ‘afterglow’ of a gamma-ray burst (GRB 190 114C); the first imaging of very distant galaxies, like our own Milky Way, again undetectable by previous instruments; and the solving of the puzzle posed by X-shaped radio galaxies. There was also the discovery of two giant radio galaxies, and the resolution in unprecedented detail of jets of high-speed particles thrown out by a massive black hole in the centre of a galaxy. Most recently, MeerKAT has discovered a group of 20 galaxies, which is probably the most neutral hydrogen-rich galactic group yet discovered. And this list is not exhaustive.
- MeerKAT+ is expected to start early science operations in 2024, followed not long afterwards by full science operations. The expanded array will be focused on sky survey programmes, covering the southern sky. A key aim will be the study of transient radar sources, including fast radio bursts and pulsars. Another priority will be cosmology – the study of individual galaxies and large-scale structures in the universe. And radio sources within our own galaxy will not be neglected, either. The intent is to produce science that will have “legacy value”.
- “The whole of MeerKAT Extension will be integrated with the rest of SKA-Mid – the timing and integration process has not been fully agreed with SKAO at this stage,” reported Esterhyse. The new dishes for MeerKAT+ will be built according to the specifications agreed for the SKA-Mid Phase 1 dishes. The MPG has already built an SKA-Mid dish demonstrator at the MeerKAT site in the Karoo. This demonstrator is serving as a testbed for both the SKA and the MeerKAT+ project.
- The SKA is seen as the ‘next-generation’ radio astronomy instrument. “The next generation of radio telescopes will enable vastly improved studies within a number of fields in radio astronomy,” explained SARAO in a statement it released last September. “The observation of accurate pulsar clocks will provide a unique opportunity to find ripples in space-time. The tracking of young galaxies at high redshifts [that is, moving away from Earth at high speeds, due to the expansion of the universe] might help to identify the nature of mysterious dark energy. Maps of the three-dimensional distribution of cosmic magnetic fields will lead to the understanding of their impact in space. A look back into the Dark Ages, the time before the universe lit up, provides opportunities to discover how black holes and stars were formed. The investigation of complex molecules may ultimately lead to building blocks of life in space.”
- The SKA is currently planned to have a lifetime of 50 years. Throughout this period, it will be constantly upgraded and modernised, with the introduction of new instrumentation and software. It is far too early to tell if the telescope will operate beyond 2080.
- Apart from its scientific benefits, the huge amounts of data that both arrays will collect will greatly stimulate the development of Big Data capabilities in all the SKAO member countries. Other high-tech sectors are also expected to benefit, including the development of energy efficient processing and the use of sustainable energy sources. Further, it is stimulating interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. And in South Africa, to support both MeerKAT and SKA, some 700 people have received grants and bursaries, covering the entire spectrum from postgraduate researchers to school leavers training to become artisans, from SARAO.
• May 21, 2021: This write-up of Nagoya University covers the some topic as reported in the follow-up event on May 6, 2021, but in a different way. — For the first time, researchers have observed plasma jets interacting with magnetic fields in a massive galaxy cluster 600 million light years away, thanks to the help of radio telescopes and supercomputer simulations. The findings, published in the journal Nature, can help clarify how such galaxy clusters evolve. 84) 85)
- Galaxy clusters can contain up to thousands of galaxies bound together by gravity. Abell 3376 is a huge cluster forming as a result of a violent collision between two sub-clusters of galaxies. Very little is known about the magnetic fields that exist within this and similar galaxy clusters.
- "It is generally difficult to directly examine the structure of intracluster magnetic fields," says Nagoya University astrophysicist Tsutomu Takeuchi, who was involved in the research. "Our results clearly demonstrate how long-wavelength radio observations can help explore this interaction."
- An international team of scientists have been using the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape of South Africa to learn more about Abell 3376's huge magnetic fields. One of the telescope's very high-resolution images revealed something unexpected: plasma jets emitted by a supermassive black hole in the cluster bend to form a unique T-shape as they extend outwards for distances as far as 326,156 light years away. The black hole is in galaxy MRC 0600-399, which is near the centre of Abell 3376.
- The team combined their MeerKAT radio telescope data with X-ray data from the European Space Agency's space telescope XMM-Newton to find that the plasma jet bend occurs at the boundary of the subcluster in which MRC 0600-399 exists.
- "This told us that the plasma jets from MRC 0600-399 were interacting with something in the heated gas, called the intracluster medium, that exists between the galaxies within Abell 3376," explains Takeuchi.
- To figure out what was happening, the team conducted 3D 'magnetohydrodynamic' simulations using the world's most powerful supercomputer in the field of astronomical calculations, ATERUI II, located at the NAOJ (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan).
Figure 66: A black hole (marked by the red x) at the centre of galaxy MRC 0600-399 emits a jet of particles that bends into a 'double-scythe' T-shape that follows the magnetic field lines at the galaxy subcluster's boundary [image credit: Modified from Chibueze, Sakemi, Ohmura et al. (2021) Nature Fig. 1(b)]
- The simulations showed that the jet streams emitted by MRC 0600-399's black hole eventually reach and interact with magnetic fields at the border of the galaxy subcluster. The jet stream compresses the magnetic field lines and moves along them, forming the characteristic T-shape.
- "This is the first discovery of an interaction between cluster galaxy plasma jets and intracluster magnetic fields," says Takeuchi.
- An international team has just begun construction of what is planned to be the world's largest radio telescope, called the Square Kilometer Array (SKA).
- "New facilities like the SKA are expected to reveal the roles and origins of cosmic magnetism and even to help us understand how the universe evolved," says Takeuchi. "Our study is a good example of the power of radio observation, one of the last frontiers in astronomy."
• May 6, 2021: New observations and simulations show that jets of high-energy particles emitted from the central massive black hole in the brightest galaxy in galaxy clusters can be used to map the structure of invisible inter-cluster magnetic fields. These findings provide astronomers with a new tool for investigating previously unexplored aspects of clusters of galaxies. 86)
- As clusters of galaxies grow through collisions with surrounding matter, they create bow shocks and wakes in their dilute plasma. The plasma motion induced by these activities can drape intra-cluster magnetic layers, forming virtual walls of magnetic force. These magnetic layers, however, can only be observed indirectly when something interacts with them. Because it is simply difficult to identify such interactions, the nature of intra-cluster magnetic fields remains poorly understood. A new approach to map/characterize magnetic layers is highly desired.
Figure 67: The bent jet structures emitted from MRC 0600-399 as observed by the MeerKAT radio telescope (left) are well reproduced by the simulation conducted on ATERUI II (right). The nearby galaxy B visible in the left part of the MeerKAT image is not affecting the jet and has been excluded in the simulation [image credit: Chibueze, Sakemi, Ohmura et al. (MeerKAT image); Takumi Ohmura, Mami Machida, Hirotaka Nakayama, 4D2U Project, NAOJ (ATERUI II image)]
- An international team of astronomers including Haruka Sakemi, a graduate student at Kyushu University (now a research fellow at the NAOJ (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan), used the MeerKAT radio telescope located in the Northern Karoo desert of South Africa to observe a bright galaxy in the merging galaxy cluster Abell 3376 known as MRC 0600-399. Located more than 600 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation Columba, MRC 0600-399 is known to have unusual jet structures bent to 90-degree angles. Previous X-ray observations revealed that MRC 0600-399 is the core of a sub-cluster penetrating the main cluster of galaxies, indicating the presence of strong magnetic layers at the boundary between the main and sub-clusters. These features make MRC 0600-399 an ideal laboratory to investigate interactions between jets and strong magnetic layers.
- The MeerKAT observations revealed unprecedented details of the jets, most strikingly, faint “double-scythe” structure extending in the opposite direction from the bend points and creating a “T” shape. These new details show that, like a stream of water hitting a pane of glass, this is a very chaotic collision. Dedicated computer simulations are required to explain the observed jet morphology and possible magnetic field configurations.
- Takumi Ohmura, a graduate student at Kyushu University (now a research fellow at the University of Tokyo’s ICRR (Institute for Cosmic-Ray Research), from the team performed simulations on NAOJ’s supercomputer ATERUI II, the most powerful computer in the world dedicated to astronomical calculations. The simulations assumed an arch-like strong magnetic field, neglecting messy details like turbulence and the motion of the galaxy. This simple model provides a good match to the observations, indicating that the magnetic pattern used in the simulation reflects the actual magnetic field intensity and structure around MRC 0600-399. More importantly, it demonstrates that the simulations can successfully represent the underlying physics so that they can be used on other objects to characterize more complex magnetic field structures in clusters of galaxies. This provides astronomers with a new way to understand the magnetized Universe and a tool to analyze the higher-quality data from future radio observatories like the SKA (Square Kilometer Array). 87)
Figure 68: Simulation of the Interaction Between a Jet and the Magnetic Field of a Galaxy Cluster. Movie of the interaction between a jet and the magnetic field of a galaxy cluster, as simulated by ATERUI II. The color of the jet represents the velocity of the gas. The higher velocity part of the jet is shown in orange, and the slower part is shown in blue. The yellow lines represent the magnetic field lines. In the last scene, the intensity of electromagnetic radiation predicted by the simulation is shown in yellow. (video credit: Takumi Ohmura, Mami Machida, Hirotaka Nakayama, 4D2U Project, NAOJ)
• January 19, 2021: Two giant radio galaxies have been discovered with South Africa’s powerful MeerKAT telescope. These galaxies are thought to be amongst the largest single objects in the Universe. The discovery has been published today in MNRAS. 88) 89)
Figure 69: Two giant radio galaxies found with the MeerKAT telescope. In the background is the sky as seen in optical light. Overlaid in red is the radio light from the enormous radio galaxies, as seen by MeerKAT. Left: MGTC J095959.63+024608.6. Right: MGTC J100016.84+015133.0 [image credit: I. Heywood (Oxford/Rhodes/SARAO), attribution (CC BY 4.0)]
- Whereas normal radio galaxies are fairly common, only a few hundred of these have radio jets exceeding 700 kilo-parsecs in size, or around 22 times the size of the Milky Way. These truly enormous systems are dubbed 'giant radio galaxies'.
- Despite the scarcity of giant radio galaxies, the authors found two of these cosmic beasts in a remarkably small patch of sky.
- Dr Jacinta Delhaize, a Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town and lead author of the work, said: "We found these giant radio galaxies in a region of sky which is only about 4 times the area of the full Moon. Based on our current knowledge of the density of giant radio galaxies in the sky, the probability of finding two of them in this region is less than 0.0003 per cent."
- "This means that giant radio galaxies are probably far more common than we thought!"
- Dr Matthew Prescott, a Research Fellow at the University of the Western Cape and co-author of the work, said, “These two galaxies are special because they are amongst the largest giants known, and in the top 10 per cent of all giant radio galaxies. They are more than 2 Mega-parsecs across, which is around 6.5 million light years or about 62 times the size of the Milky Way. Yet they are fainter than others of the same size."
- "We suspect that many more galaxies like these should exist, because of the way we think galaxies grow and change over their lifetimes."
- Why so few radio galaxies have such gigantic sizes remains something of a mystery. It is thought that the giants are the oldest radio galaxies, which have existed for long enough (several hundred million years) for their radio jets to grow outwards to these enormous sizes. If this is true, then many more giant radio galaxies should exist than are currently known.
- The giant radio galaxies were spotted in new radio maps of the sky created by the MeerKAT International Gigahertz Tiered Extragalactic Exploration (MIGHTEE) survey. It is one of the large survey projects underway with South Africa's impressive MeerKAT radio telescope, a precursor to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which is due to become fully operational in the mid-2020s.
- Dr Ian Heywood, a co-author at the University of Oxford, said "The MeerKAT telescope is the best of its kind in the world. We have managed to identify these giant radio galaxies for the first time because of MeerKAT's unprecedented sensitivity to faint and diffuse radio light."
- Dr Delhaize adds, "In the past, this population of galaxies has been hidden from our 'sight' by the technical limitations of radio telescopes. However, it is now being revealed thanks to the impressive capabilities of the new generation of telescopes."
- Construction of the highly anticipated trans-continental SKA telescope is due to commence in South Africa and Australia in 2021, and continue until 2027. Science commissioning observations could begin as early as 2023, and it is hoped that the telescope will reveal larger populations of radio galaxies than ever before and revolutionize our understanding of galaxy evolution.
• September 16, 2020: The MeerKAT Extension Project will provide a considerable improvement to the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Karoo area in South Africa, presently consisting of 64 radio dishes forming an array telescope of up to 8 km virtual diameter. It will increase the total number of dishes to 84 and will also increase the maximum distance between the antennas to 17 km, thus enabling an increase in sensitivity, spatial resolution and image quality. 90)
- The extension will be jointly funded by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory and the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Germany.
- The scientific perspective currently investigated by the German and South African partners in the project favors survey programs of the Southern Sky at observing frequencies that will provide legacy value and enable the study of transient sources like fast radio bursts or Pulsars, cosmology and large-scale structures, individual galaxies and also sources within the Milky Way.
Figure 70: The SKA-Max Planck Dish Demonstrator operating at the South African SKA site in the Karoo desert (image credit: MPIfR/Gundolf Wieching)
- The MeerKAT telescope array is a precursor facility for the worldwide project of a next-generation radio telescope, the Square Kilometer Array, and will eventually be integrated in the mid-frequency part of this international project.
- The next generation of radio telescopes will enable vastly improved studies within a number of fields in radio astronomy. The observation of accurate pulsar clocks will provide a unique opportunity to find ripples in space-time. The tracking of young galaxies at high redshifts might help to identify the nature of mysterious dark energy. Maps of the three-dimensional distribution of cosmic magnetic fields will lead to the understanding of their impact in space. A look back into the Dark Ages, the time before the Universe lit up, provides opportunities to discover how black holes and stars were formed. The investigation of complex interstellar molecules may ultimately lead to building blocks of life in space.
- The extension of the MeerKAT array means the start of a scientific and technological development initiated by a close collaboration between the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (MPG). It will bring a legacy value to the international astronomical community ultimately leading to the Square Kilometer Array as the next-generation facility for radio astronomy.
- This project is set to expand the baseline of the current radio telescope array by adding 20 additional dish antennas. The extension will be jointly funded by SARAO and MPG.
- MeerKAT currently includes 64 dishes, and the extension project (MK+) will see this number rise to 84. Importantly, the extension will result in the maximum distance between the dishes increasing from 8 km to 17 km, a move that will increase both MeerKAT’s sensitivity and its ability to capture higher definition radio images. The telescope’s computing requirements will also increase tenfold following these improvements.
- The South African partner will be responsible for establishing the site infrastructure, detectors and cryogenic infrastructure for the dishes, as well as data processing equipment whereas the German partner will provide the additional new dish antennas following the design of dishes for the SKA, instrumentation in the form of detectors, data acquisition and analysis systems for the MeerKAT telescope. Both partners will contribute R400 million (approx. 20 million €) each to the project.
- German research institutions and industry have been an intrinsic part of the South Africa industrialization program, and have significant involvement in the ongoing design activities for the Square Kilometer Array. Within the dish engineering consortium, both are key players and together with international partners they are responsible for the designing of the mid-frequency antennas. In this spirit the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft has invested into the SKA-Max Planck Dish demonstrator, a dish antenna, which is currently being qualified by the South African team to the required specifications, at the South Africa’s Karoo region.
Figure 71: The president of the Max Planck Society, Prof. Martin Stratmann (the fifth from the left side), visiting the Karoo site of the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa with a German delegation (image credit: SARAO)
- Dr Molapo Qhobela, Chief Executive Officer of the National Research Foundation of South Africa, said the extended MeerKAT would be an even more powerful telescope to study the formation and evolution of galaxies throughout the history of the universe. “The extended MeerKAT will increase the raw sensitivity of the instruments by about 50%, a move that will enable the telescope to survey the sky faster, and also enable it to detect even faintest astronomical sources.”
- The MeerKAT extension project is closely associated with the infrastructure project for the mid-frequency part of the first phase of the SKA to be implemented in South Africa. Contractors working on the present extension project may be involved with the follow-on in future.
- Thus, the 20 additional dishes of the extension project will eventually be integrated into the first phase of the mid-frequency part of the SKA which will include a number of 197 dishes in total.
- The project was initiated in 2019 with a thorough science evaluation and technical planning. Major tendering for the extension of MeerKAT is on its way and first installation activities on site are scheduled for middle of 2021. The further steps of integration and science commissioning are expected to commence in 2023.
- "I am impressed what has been achieved with the MeerKAT telescope and we are proud to collaborate with our South African colleagues in the extension of the project”, concludes Prof. Martin Stratmann, the president of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Germany who visited the Karoo site in South Africa in January 2020. “You really have to see the facility directly – it is an impressive sight.“
• June 25, 2020: South Africa, struggling to contain economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, has cut $20 million from its budget for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). The cut was part of a 24 June budget announcement in which the country, anticipating severely reduced revenues and an increased need for health and social spending, slashed its science budget for the year by 16%. The country’s major research funding agency, the National Research Foundation, also lost 10% of its government allocation, about $5.6 million (96.6 million rand). 91)
- South Africa and Australia are hosting the SKA, which when completed in the 2030s will have a total collecting area of 1 square kilometer. In a $1 billion first phase, the project aims to build some 130,000 small antennas in Australia, designed to collect low-frequency signals, while South Africa will host nearly 200 large, midfrequency dishes. Data from the linked arrays will be used to map the flows of hydrogen that fuel star formation and to study where and when the universe’s first stars fired up.
- Construction—meant to begin at the end of this year—has now been delayed “well into 2021” because of the pandemic, says SKA Director of Communications William Garnier. Before construction begins, the seven countries intending to join the international treaty organization have to ratify a convention to make their commitments legally binding. So far, only three nations—Italy, the Netherlands, and South Africa—have ratified the treaty, with South Africa signing on 2 June. As a co-host, South Africa expects to pay about 14% of construction and operating costs, says Rob Adam, head of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory.
- The expansion of the country’s MeerKAT radio telescope is more likely to be delayed by international travel restrictions than the budget cuts, Adam says. MeerKAT, a 64-dish telescope array designed and built by South Africa, will be folded into the SKA. An extension project, in partnership with Germany’s Max Planck Society, will see another 20 dishes added to the telescope beginning in May 2021.
- To limit spread of the novel coronavirus, South Africa began a strict physical lockdown on 27 March. But it has slowly been opening its economy even as confirmed cases of the disease spike. Its borders, however, remain closed.
• May 7, 2020: A team of astronomers from South Africa and the US have used the MeerKAT telescope to solve a longstanding puzzle in ‘X’-shaped radio galaxies. 92)
- Many galaxies far more active than the Milky Way have enormous twin jets of radio waves extending far into intergalactic space. Normally these go in opposite directions, coming from a massive black hole at the center of the galaxy. However, a few are more complicated and appear to have four jets forming an ‘X’ on the sky.
Figure 72: The galaxy PKS 2014-55, located 800 million light years from Earth, is classified as ‘X-shaped’ because of its appearance in previous relatively blurry images. The detail provided in this radio image obtained with the MeerKAT telescope indicates that its shape is best described as a ‘double boomerang’. Two powerful jets of radio waves, indicated in blue color, each extend 2.5 million light years into space (comparable to the distance between the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest major neighbor). Eventually, they are ‘turned back’ by the pressure of tenuous intergalactic gas. As they flow back towards the central galaxy, they are deflected by its relatively high gas pressure into the shorter, horizontal, arms of the boomerang. The background image shows visible light from myriad galaxies in the distant universe. Adapted from W Cotton et al, MNRAS (2020), image credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; SARAO; DES
- Several possible explanations have been proposed to understand this phenomenon. These include changes in the direction of spin of the black hole at the center of the galaxy, and associated jets, over millions of years; two black holes each associated with a pair of jets; and material falling back into the galaxy being deflected into different directions forming the other two arms of the ‘X’.
- Exquisite new MeerKAT observations of one such galaxy, PKS 2014-55, strongly favor the latter explanation as they show material “turning the corner” as it flows back towards the host galaxy; the results have just been accepted for publication in the journal MNRAS (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society). 93)
Figure 73: Annotated image showing X-shaped giant radio galaxy PKS 2014-55, observed with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s MeerKAT telescope, indicating the old X-shaped radio jets, the younger jets closer to the central black hole, and the region of influence dominated by the central galaxy’s stars and gas. The curved arrows denote the direction of the backflow that forms the horizontal components of the X (image credit: UP; NRAO/AUI/NSF; SARAO; DES)
- This work was carried out by a team from the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), the (US) National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), the University of Pretoria, and Rhodes University.
- Previous studies of these unusual galaxies lacked the high quality imaging provided by the recently completed MeerKAT telescope. This telescope array consists of 64 radio dishes located in the Karoo semi-desert in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Computers combined the data from these antennas into a telescope 8 km in diameter, and provided images in the radio band of unprecedented quality for PKS 2014-55 which enabled solving the mystery of its shape.
- Bernie Fanaroff, former director of the SKA South Africa project that built MeerKAT, and a co-author of the study, notes that “MeerKAT was designed to be the best of its kind in the world. It’s wonderful to see how its unique capabilities are contributing to resolving longstanding questions related to the evolution of galaxies.”
- Lead author William Cotton of the NRAO says that “MeerKAT is one of a new generation of instruments whose power solves old puzzles even as it finds new ones – this galaxy shows features never seen before in this detail which are not fully understood.” Further research into these open questions is already underway.
- The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), a facility of the National Research Foundation, is responsible for managing all radio astronomy initiatives and facilities in South Africa, including the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Karoo, and the geodesy and VLBI activities at the HartRAO facility. SARAO also coordinates the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) for the eight SKA partner countries in Africa, as well as South Africa’s contribution to the infrastructure and engineering planning for the Square Kilometer Array radio telescope. To maximize the return on South Africa’s investment in radio astronomy, SARAO is managing programs to create capacity in radio astronomy science and engineering research, and the technical capacity required to support site operations.
• April 8, 2020: An international team of astronomers has uncovered unusual features in the radio galaxy ESO 137-006 using MeerKAT data. 94)
- Launched in 2018, the South African MeerKAT radio telescope is a precursor to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which aims to answer fundamental astrophysical questions about the nature of objects in the Universe.
- ESO 137-006 is a fascinating galaxy residing in the Norma cluster of galaxies, and one of the brightest objects in the southern sky at radio wavelengths. The classical picture of a radio galaxy consists of an active galactic nucleus (AGN, hosting a growing supermassive black hole), shooting out two jets of plasma filled with particles that move at speeds close to the speed of light. The material within the jets eventually slows down and billows out, forming large radio lobes. ESO 137-006 is characterized by two such lobes of very bright radio emission.
Figure 74: Image reconstructed using radio emission data from MeerKAT at 1000 MHz, showing unusual collimated synchrotron threads connecting radio emission lobes of ESO 137-006 (image credit: Rhodes University/INAF/SARAO)
- “New features have been uncovered in this galaxy in the form of multiple, extremely collimated threads of radio emission connecting the lobes of the galaxy. The radio emission from the threads is likely synchrotron radiation caused by the high-energy electrons spiralling in a magnetic field,” explains Mpati Ramatsoku, a Research Fellow at Rhodes University and lead author of the study.
- The nature of these unusual features is unclear. It is possible that these features may be unique to ESO 137-006, because of its harsh environment, but it is equally possible that these features are common in radio galaxies but, so far, we have been unable to detect them due to sensitivity and resolution limits. According to the team that made this discovery, which is composed of collaborators from South Africa and Italy and is partly funded by the European Research Council, further observations and theoretical efforts are required to clarify the nature of these newly discovered features.
- Ramatsoku points out that understanding the nature and the physics of these collimated synchrotron threads (CST) could open a new science case for sensitive radio interferometers like MeerKAT and, in the future, the SKA.
- “This is exciting because we did not expect it at all,” says Professor Oleg Smirnov, Head of the Radio Astronomy Research Group at SARAO. “Such serendipitous discoveries are very important for MeerKAT because it highlights its incredible capacity for finding the ‘unknown unknowns’ in our Universe,” he continues.
- The article based on this study has been published in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal. 95)
• December 17, 2019: Look at this new radio image covered with dots, each of which is a distant galaxy! The brightest spots are galaxies that are powered by supermassive black holes and shine bright in radio light. But what makes this image special are the numerous faint dots filling the sky. These are distant galaxies like our own that have never been observed in radio light before. 96)
- To learn about the star-formation history of the universe, we need to look back in time. Galaxies throughout the universe have been forming stars for the past 13 billion years. But most stars were born between 8 and 11 billion years ago, during an era called “cosmic noon”.
Figure 75: MeerKAT image of radio galaxies: Thousands of galaxies are visible in this radio image covering a square degree of sky near the south celestial pole, made by the MeerKAT radio telescope array in South Africa. The brightest spots are luminous radio galaxies powered by supermassive black holes. The myriad faint dots are distant galaxies like our own Milky Way, too faint to have been detected before now, which reveal the star-formation history of the universe. Most galaxies are visible in the central part of the image, where the telescope is most sensitive (image credit: SARAO; NRAO/AUI/NSF)
- It has been a challenge for astronomers to study the faint light coming from this era. Optical telescopes, like SALT in Sutherland, can see very distant galaxies, but new stars are largely hidden inside dusty clouds of gas. Radio telescopes can see through the dust and observe the rare, bright “starburst” galaxies, but until now have not been sensitive enough to detect the signals from distant Milky Way-like galaxies that are responsible for most of the star formation in the universe.
- An international team of astronomers, using the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) MeerKAT telescope near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, recently made the first radio observation sensitive enough to reveal these galaxies. “To make this image, we selected an area in the Southern Sky that contains no strong radio sources whose glare could blind a sensitive observation,” said Tom Mauch of SARAO in Cape Town, who led the team who has had their results accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. 97)
- The team used the 64 MeerKAT dishes to observe this area for a total of 130 hours. The resulting image shows a region of the sky that is comparable in area to five full Moons, containing tens of thousands of galaxies (Figure 75).
- “Because radio waves travel at the speed of light, this image is a time machine that samples star formation in these distant galaxies over billions of years,” explained co-author James Condon of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the USA. “Because only short-lived stars that are less than 30 million years old send out radio waves, we know that the image is not contaminated by old stars. The radio light we see from each galaxy is therefore proportional to its star-forming rate at that moment in time.”
- The astronomers want to use this image to learn more about star formation in the entire universe. “These first results indicate that the star-formation rate around cosmic noon is even higher than was originally expected,” said Allison Matthews, a PhD student at the University of Virginia. “Previous images could only detect the tip of the iceberg, the rare and luminous galaxies that produced only a small fraction of the stars in the universe. What we see now is the complete picture: these faint dots are the galaxies that formed most of the stars in the universe.”
- “MeerKAT is the best radio array in the world for studies like this one because it is the first to use such a large number of extremely low-noise clear-aperture dishes,” explained SARAO Chief Technologist Justin Jonas. As a result, the MeerKAT image (nicknamed “DEEP2”) is more sensitive to distant star-forming galaxies than any previous view of the radio sky.
Figure 76: Composite of radio galaxies and MeerKAT telescope: Thousands of galaxies are visible in this radio image covering a square degree of sky near the south celestial pole, made by the MeerKAT radio telescope array (foreground) in the South African Karoo semi-desert. The brightest spots are luminous radio galaxies powered by supermassive black holes. The myriad faint dots are distant galaxies like our own Milky Way, too faint to have been detected before now. Because radio waves travel at the speed of light, this image is a time machine that samples the star formation history of the universe (image credit: SARAO; NRAO/AUI/NSF)
• November 21, 2019: Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are the most luminous explosions in the cosmos. These explosive events last several seconds and during that time they emit the same amount of gamma-rays as all the stars in the Universe combined. 98)
- Such extreme amounts of energy can only be released during catastrophic events like the death of a very massive star, or the merging of two compact stars, and are accompanied by an afterglow of light over a broad range of wavelengths (or equivalently energies), that fades with time.
- While it has been decades since the discovery of the first GRB, some of their fundamental traits remain a puzzle. An international team of more than 300 researchers, including astronomers from the University of Cape Town, Prof. Patrick Woudt and MSc Astronomy student Reikantseone Diretse, has gained further insight into the physical processes at work during these events. They accomplished this through the observation of a GRB with an afterglow featuring the highest energy photons ever detected in these events: photons a trillion times more energetic than visible light.
- On 14 January 2019, researchers detected GRB 190114C, which is unique in that researchers were able to observe for the first time in its afterglow emission photons with teraelectronvolt (TeV) energies, using the MAGIC telescope in the Canary Islands. This emission of TeV photons was 100 times more intense than the brightest known steady source at TeV energies, the Crab Nebula. As expected, the very high energy emission faded quickly in about half an hour after the event onset, while the afterglow emission in other parts of the spectrum persisted for much longer.
- The discovery triggered an extensive campaign of observations across the electromagnetic spectrum, mobilizing more than 20 observatories and instruments around the world. This collaborative effort allowed researchers to gather the most information ever collected about a GRB, capturing the evolution of the GRB afterglow emission across 17 orders of magnitude in energy.
- Prof. Woudt and R. Diretse were part of a team responsible for tracking the emission of radio waves in the afterglow of GRB 190114C. The team used the new MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa to record the emission. While gamma rays are very high energy photons, radio waves are found at the other energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum. “The rapid response of the MeerKAT telescope to observe this extreme stellar explosion, combined with its excellent sensitivity, has allowed us to detect the radio afterglow within 24 hours of the explosion,” explains Prof. Woudt.
Figure 77: Reikantseone Diretse in front of the MeerKAT observation of GRB190114C (encircled) in the IDIA Visualization Lab (image credit: Siphelo Funani)
- Diretse continues to monitor the radio afterglow of this event using MeerKAT. He says: “The recording of TeV energies for GRB190114C and its continued monitoring with radio telescopes such as MeerKAT helps us to untangle the high energy astrophysics of these exciting transient events. Being part of such a discovery was ecstatic and highly motivating.”
- Diretse’s study is supported by a postgraduate scholarship from the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA). The research cloud computing infrastructure of IDIA has contributed towards the fast analysis of the MeerKAT observations of GRB190114C. Prof. Russ Taylor, Director of the IDIA, says: “This amazing scientific achievement underscores the importance of the ability of South African researchers to rapidly analyze large MeerKAT data sets with the data intensive research cloud developed at IDIA.”
- Dr Rob Adam, Managing Director of the South African Radio Astronomy says: “Once again we see the potential of the MeerKAT telescope in finding interesting and possibly new astrophysical phenomena, as well as the power of the multi-wavelength approach to the analysis of observations.”
- A collaborator on the MeerKAT team, Prof. Chryssa Kouveliotou of George Washington University in the USA, concludes: “MAGIC (the TeV photon detector) opened up a new window on GRB research, and we are looking forward to understanding their physics and true energy release with more detections in the future”.
- The findings were announced in the study, Inverse Compton emission revealed by multi-wavelength observations of a gamma-ray burst, published on 21 November 2019 in the international scientific journal Nature. 99)
• September 11, 2019: Astronomers have discovered one of the largest features ever observed in the center of the Milky Way: a pair of enormous radio-emitting bubbles that tower hundreds of light-years above and below the central region of our galaxy. 100) 101)
- This hourglass-like feature, which dwarfs all other radio structures in the galactic center, is likely the result of a phenomenally energetic burst that erupted near the Milky Way's supermassive black hole a few million years ago.
Figure 78: Radio image of the central portions of the Milky Way galaxy. The plane of the galaxy is marked by a series of bright features, exploded stars and regions where new stars are being born, and runs horizontally through the image. The black hole at the center of the Milky Way is hidden in the brightest of these extended regions. The radio bubbles discovered by MeerKAT extend vertically above and below the plane of the galaxy. Many magnetized filaments can be seen running parallel to the bubbles. (Adapted from results published in Heywood et al. 2019.), image credit: Oxford, SARAO
- "The center of our galaxy is relatively calm when compared to other galaxies with very active central black holes," said Ian Heywood of the University of Oxford and lead author of an article appearing in the journal Nature. "Even so, the Milky Way's central black hole can - from time to time - become uncharacteristically active, flaring up as it periodically devours massive clumps of dust and gas. It's possible that one such feeding frenzy triggered powerful outbursts that inflated this previously unseen feature." 102)
- Using the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) MeerKAT telescope, Heywood and his colleagues mapped out broad regions in the center of the galaxy, conducting observations at wavelengths near 23 centimeters. Radio emission of this kind is generated in a process known as synchrotron radiation, in which electrons moving at close to the speed of light interact with powerful magnetic fields. This produces a characteristic radio signal that can be used to trace energetic regions in space. This radio light easily penetrates the dense clouds of dust that block visible light from the center of the galaxy.
- By examining the nearly identical size and shape of the twin bubbles, the researchers think they have found convincing evidence that these features were formed from a violent eruption that over a short period of time punched through the interstellar medium in opposite directions.
- "The shape and symmetry of what we have observed strongly suggests that a staggeringly powerful event happened a few million years ago very near our galaxy's central black hole," said William Cotton, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, and co-author on the paper. "This eruption was possibly triggered by vast amounts of interstellar gas falling in on the black hole, or a massive burst of star formation which sent shockwaves careening through the galactic center. In effect, this inflated bubbles in the hot, ionized gas near the galactic center, energizing it and generating radio waves that we could eventually detect here on Earth."
- The environment surrounding the black hole at the center of our galaxy is vastly different than the environment elsewhere in the Milky Way, and is a region of many mysteries. Among those are very long and narrow filaments found nowhere else, the origin of which has remained an unsolved puzzle since their discovery 35 years ago. The filaments appear as radio structures tens of light-years long and approximately a light-year wide.
- "The radio bubbles discovered by MeerKAT now shed light on the origin of the filaments," said Farhad Yusef-Zadeh at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a co-author on the paper. "Almost all of the more than one hundred filaments are confined by the radio bubbles."
- The authors suggest that the close association of the filaments with the bubbles implies that the energetic event that created the radio bubbles is also responsible for accelerating the electrons required to produce the radio emission from the magnetized filaments.
- "These enormous bubbles have until now been hidden by the glare of extremely bright radio emission from the center of the galaxy," said Fernando Camilo of SARAO in Cape Town, and co-author on the paper. "Teasing out the bubbles from the background noise was a technical tour de force, only made possible by MeerKAT's unique characteristics and ideal location," according to Camilo. "With this unexpected discovery we're witnessing in the Milky Way a novel manifestation of galaxy-scale outflows of matter and energy, ultimately governed by the central black hole."
- According to the researchers, the discovery of these bubbles relatively nearby in the center of our home galaxy brings us one step closer to understanding spectacular activities that occur in more distant cousins of the Milky Way throughout the universe.
• February 25, 2019: South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, congratulates the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) team of engineers for the successful completion of all essential infrastructure designs required for the first phase of the project to build the world’s most powerful radio telescope. 103)
- The SKA, a collection of telescopes spread over long distances that will combine to unlock the universe’s mysteries, will be constructed in South Africa and Australia, with later expansion planned for both countries as well as other African countries. The international collaboration to build the SKA is being led by the SKA Organization (SKAO) headquartered in Manchester, United Kingdom.
- For the last five years, two engineering consortia have been hard at work at their sites in Murchison, Western Australia and the Northern Cape, South Africa respectively, designing all the essential infrastructure required for construction of this complex global project to get under way. This includes access roads, power, water and sanitation, buildings, antenna foundations, and the communication, security and site monitoring equipment required to support the SKA telescope.
- The South African consortium, Infrastructure South Africa (INSA), was led by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which designed, built and operates the 64-dish SKA precursor telescope, the MeerKAT.
- In June and July 2018, after nearly five years of collaboration both within and between the two consortia, both teams had successful critical design reviews, and subsequently made final refinements to their designs. In order to pass the critical design review, the proposed designs had to demonstrate compliance with SKA “Level 1” requirements.
- Following the successful review of the key infrastructure components of the SKA – considered a major engineering victory – the project will now move on to the bridging phase. This phase will bring together all the individual detailed designs of elements of the SKA and integrate them on a system level. A system critical design review will be conducted in December 2019, after which the project will enter the procurement phase, followed by construction once the establishment of the SKAO as an intergovernmental organization has been concluded.
- “I am proud of the sterling work by our engineers who are part of the SKA project,” said South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane. “SARAO, led by the National Research Foundation, has provided world-class infrastructure for the MeerKAT, which has already attracted other international radio astronomy instruments to the SKA site in South Africa. I have no doubt the expertise and best practice developed during the delivery of this precursor telescope enabled the INSA consortium to meet the SKA Organization's stringent standards for infrastructure design,” the Minister added.
- “We wish the SKAO well for the system critical design review at the end of 2019, and the development of the construction proposal for approval by the intergovernmental organization.”
• January 24, 2019: The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project in the Northern Cape is not only about building a radio telescope to tune into the universe. It is also about investing in bright young scientists, local communities, and South African technology companies. 104)
- Over R300 million has been spent in the Northern Cape with the construction of the KAT-7, a proof-of-concept radio telescope, and MeerKAT, the precursor to the SKA. The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) spearheads South Africa’s activities within the SKA, an international project.
- In 2005 the SARAO funded nine students to study in science. Last year it was 103. Altogether 1,000 students have received grants to study science and engineering – from graduate degrees to post-doctoral studies.
- Anton Binneman of SARAO said the project was most involved in Williston, Carnarvon, Vanwyksvlei and Brandvlei. But Vosburg, Loxton, Swartkop, and Fraserburg are also benefitting. There are over 20,000 people in all of these small towns.
- Binneman told GroundUp: “The social problems in rural towns in South Africa are a massive challenge and a project like the SKA will not solve all these problems immediately. In the towns we are working in the difference is evident.
- “SKA is currently employing 100 people with full-time positions in Carnarvon and the organization is spending substantial amounts of money in these communities.”
- Some of the latest figures are: R136 million spent with local contractors for the construction of MeerKAT; R162 million on salaries in the Northern Cape; R3 million on local catering and accommodation, R4 million on local transport and R5 million on materials from local suppliers for the equipment for the construction of the HERA telescope.
- MeerKAT, KAT-7 and related projects created nearly 8,000 jobs. Over 100 local women were directly employed by SARAO between 2015 and 2017 and nearly 1,300 by subcontractors.
- A technical training center was established in Carnarvon to train young adults in various artisan fields. Daphne Lekgwathi of SARAO said 84 students have been trained as electricians, fitters and turners, in instrumentation, diesel mechanics, in IT and boiler making, as well as in carpentry, plumbing, bricklaying and welding. “There is nothing more gratifying than to change someone else’s life for the better,” she said.
- There is also a schools program – which focuses on maths and science. Learners from schools in these towns who are interested in maths, physical science and natural science and who perform well in these subjects can apply to become part of the bursary program. Since 2011, 72 local learners have received bursaries to study at technical colleges and 15 at universities.
Figure 79: Students from across the continent participated in the 2018 SARAO Postgraduate Bursary Conference which was held in December 2018(image credit: SARAO)
• August 17, 2018: The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) celebrates after the SKA Telescope Manager Critical Design Review has been completed. 105)
- SARAO made a significant contribution to the Telescope Manager consortium, which is one of 12 engineering consortia representing 500 engineers in 20 countries building the SKA Observatory and Telescopes. Nine of the consortia focused on a component of the telescope, each critical to the overall success of the project, while three others focused on developing advanced instrumentation for the telescope. The Telescope Manager consortium was itself comprised of nine institutions in seven countries.
- The Telescope Manager consortium was formed in 2013 and was tasked with designing the crucial software that will control and monitor the SKA Observatory and Telescopes, essentially forming its central nervous system. This implies that the Telescope Manager element is connected to all other elements such as the correlator, science processor, dishes and low frequency aperture arrays, and coordinates their actions.
- The Telescope Manager will receive thousands of sensor updates per second, and needs to figure out what actions to take based on this information. The Telescope Manager also provides key stakeholders with user interfaces, for example it will provide operators with a view of the health and status of each telescope.
- The design of the SKA Telescope Manager has recently been subjected to a Critical Design Review (CDR), and has subsequently passed this stage gate, achieving a CDR closure certificate. The review was held in April of this year, was led by the SKA Organization, and included a panel of international experts in the field. The Telescope Manager consortium is the first consortium out of twelve to pass this rigorous review.
- SARAO led the Telescope Manager System Engineering team involved in the design of this vital component, and also participated in the Management work package. SARAO team members acted as the primary authors of a range of important design artefacts, such as requirement and compliance specifications, interface control documents, construction and verification plans to name a few.
- Ray Brederode, Functional Manager for Software at SARAO, and his team comprising Paul Swart, Lize van der Heever and Gerhard le Roux, all from the Software Team at SARAO, participated in the design of the Telescope Manager element.
- “We are proud that the MeerKAT CAM system was selected as the reference design for TM. We also congratulate Professor Yashwant Gupta of GMRT in India, the TM Consortium Chair, for leading the first consortium to successfully achieve CDR,” says Dr Rob Adam, Managing Director of SARAO.
- While the Telescope Manager consortium now formally ceases to exist, the SKA Organization continues to work with SARAO and the other former consortium members on the System Design and the SKA construction proposal, where its expertise will be required to ensure that the system design works in conjunction with the other elements.
- The Telescope Consortium members included the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO); the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Council (CSIRO) in Australia; the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), TCS Research and Innovation and Persistent Systems in India; Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF); Portugal’s ENGAGE SKA Consortium through Instituto de Telecomunicações (IT) and the School of Sciences of Porto University; and the UK’s Astronomy Technology Centre funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
Figure 80: Partial view of the 64-antenna MeerKAT radio telescope which will be incorporated into Phase 1 of the SKA-MID telescope (image credit: SARAO)
• July 16, 2018: The recently launched MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape has paved the way for 72 students to further their studies. Astronomers working at the site outside the town of Carnarvon say besides groundbreaking research, the facility also has other socio-economic spin-offs. 106)
- Besides revolutionary research work, SKA (Square Kilometer Array) South Africa also invests in human capital development programs.
- Officials say a number of schools in the region benefit from these initiatives. Former Carnarvon High School learner, aged 21, Janethan de Klerk now studies computer science at the University of the Free State. ”They literally helped us register until the end and it has opened doors for me since my parents couldn’t afford it. I had to take this opportunity and make the best out of it.”
MeerKAT Inauguration: On 13 July 2018, Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa, Mr David Mabuza, today officially inaugurated the MeerKAT 64-dish radio telescope. After a decade in design and construction, this project of South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology has now begun science operations. At the launch event, a panorama obtained with the new telescope was unveiled that reveals extraordinary detail in the region surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. This is one of several very exciting new views of the Universe already observed by the telescope. 107)
Figure 81: This image, taken by the MeerKAT Radio Telescope, is considered the clearest view of the center of the Milky Way and includes never before seen features and star-forming regions, and radio filaments. At the distance of the galactic center (located within the white area near image center), this 2º x 1º panorama corresponds to an area of approximately 1,000 light-years by 500 light-years. The color scheme chosen here to display the signals represents the brightness of the radio waves recorded by the telescope (ranging from red for faint emission to orange to yellow to white for the brightest areas), image credit: SARAO
- “We wanted to show the science capabilities of this new instrument”, says Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which built and operates MeerKAT in the semi-arid Karoo region of the Northern Cape. “The center of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena – but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes”, according to Camilo. The center of the Milky Way, 25,000 light-years away from Earth and lying behind the constellation Sagittarius (the “Teapot”), is forever enshrouded by intervening clouds of gas and dust, making it invisible from Earth using ordinary telescopes. However, infrared, X-ray, and in particular, radio wavelengths penetrate the obscuring dust and open a window into this distinctive region with its unique 4 million solar mass black hole. “Although it’s early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be optimized, we decided to go for it – and were stunned by the results.”
- “This image is remarkable”, says Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, one of the world’s leading experts on the mysterious filamentary structures present near the central black hole but nowhere else in the Milky Way. These long and narrow magnetized filaments were discovered in the 1980s using the VLA (Very Large Array ) radio telescope in New Mexico, but their origin has remained a mystery. “The MeerKAT image has such clarity”, continues Yusef-Zadeh, “it shows so many features never before seen, including compact sources associated with some of the filaments, that it could provide the key to cracking the code and solve this three-decade riddle”.
- Yusef-Zadeh adds that “MeerKAT now provides an unsurpassed view of this unique region of our galaxy. It’s an exceptional achievement, congratulations to our South African colleagues. They’ve built an instrument that will be the envy of astronomers everywhere and will be in great demand for years to come”.
- MeerKAT, with its 64 antennas, is an SKA precursor telescope and it will ultimately be incorporated into the SKA’s mid-frequency array of some 200 dishes in the Karoo region, but it is a world-class facility in its own right and promises to deliver even more exciting science in the coming years. 108)
- “MeerKAT stands at the end of a chapter, and at the start of another one,” said SKA Director-General Prof. Phil Diamond in an address at the ceremony. “South Africa and the South African people should be proud: this is a fantastic milestone for the country, that will certainly make history. Now the science can start in earnest, and you can reap the scientific benefits of all your hard work.”
- The 64 dishes provide 2,000 unique antenna pairs, far more than any comparable telescope, resulting in high-fidelity images of the radio sky. The image unveiled today shows the clearest view yet of the central regions of our galaxy.
• July 3, 2018: After a decade in the works, South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope (Figure 82), a precursor to the SKA (Square Kilometer Array) mid-frequency telescope, is beginning science operations. MeerKAT is a radio interferometer located in the semi-arid and sparsely populated Karoo region of the Northern Cape. The array consists of 64 antennas 13.5 m in diameter located on baselines of up to 8 km. 109)
Figure 82: Part of the 64-dish MeerKAT array (image credit: South African Radio Astronomy Observatory)
- The distribution of the antennas, with three quarters of them located within a 1 km-diameter core, makes MeerKAT particularly suited to a variety of pulsar and neutral hydrogen studies. Several of the selected large survey projects (Lisps), which will use two thirds of the available observing time within five years, will address key questions related to galaxy formation and evolution. For instance, the unique combination of column density sensitivity and angular resolution will make MeerKAT a powerful probe for studying accretion onto galaxies in the nearby Universe. Projects will investigate the range of conditions from star-forming disks to low-density gas in dark matter haloes in isolated galaxies, and will examine how galaxies interact within rich clusters, while seeking to detect the cosmic web. Further afield, the 21 cm line of neutral hydrogen will be used to investigate the properties and evolution of galaxies across two thirds of cosmic time.
• April 2018: New radio (MeerKAT and Parkes) and X-ray (XMM-Newton, Swift, Chandra, and NuSTAR) observations of PSR-J1622–4950 indicate that the magnetar, in a quiescent state since at least early 2015, reactivated between 2017 March 19 and April 5. The radio flux density, while variable, is approximately 100 x larger than during its dormant state. The X-ray flux one month after reactivation was at least 800 x larger than during quiescence, and has been decaying exponentially on a 111±19 day timescale. This high-flux state, together with a radio-derived rotational ephemeris, enabled for the first time the detection of X-ray pulsations for this magnetar. At 5%, the 0.3–6 keV pulsed fraction is comparable to the smallest observed for magnetars. The overall pulsar geometry inferred from polarized radio emission appears to be broadly consistent with that determined 6–8 years earlier. However, rotating vector model fits suggest that we are now seeing radio emission from a different location in the magnetosphere than previously. This indicates a novel way in which radio emission from magnetars can differ from that of ordinary pulsars. The torque on the neutron star is varying rapidly and unsteadily, as is common for magnetars following outburst, having changed by a factor of 7 within six months of reactivation. 110)
• May 19,2017: The South African SKA precursor telescope MeerKAT has just released its recent AR1.5 (Array Release 1.5) results, images achieved by using various configurations of the 32 antennas currently operational in the Karoo. 111)
- This milestone of the integration of 32 antennas with single polarization correlator was achieved on schedule by the end of March 2017. The 32 antennas are part of the eventual 64 antennas which are being built at the Losberg site in the Northern Cape.
- New radio and X-ray observations of PSR-J1622–4950 that demonstrate that this magnetar most likely reactivated between 2017 March 19 and April 5. This is the first magnetar for which radio emission has been re-detected following a long period of inactivity.
• July 16, 2016: The MeerKAT First Light image of the sky, released today by Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, shows unambiguously that MeerKAT is already the best radio telescope of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Array Release 1 (AR1) being celebrated today provides 16 of an eventual 64 dishes integrated into a working telescope array. It is the first significant scientific milestone achieved by MeerKAT, the radio telescope under construction in the Karoo that will eventually be integrated into the SKA (Square Kilometer Array). 112)
- In a small patch of sky covering less than 0.01 percent of the entire celestial sphere, the MeerKAT First Light image shows more than 1300 galaxies in the distant Universe, compared to 70 known in this location prior to MeerKAT. “Based on the results being shown today, we are confident that after all 64 dishes are in place, MeerKAT will be the world’s leading telescope of its kind until the advent of SKA,” according to Professor Justin Jonas, SKA South Africa Chief Technologist.
- MeerKAT will consist of 64 receptors, each comprising a 13.5 m diameter dish antenna, cryogenic coolers, receivers, digitizer, and other electronics. The commissioning of MeerKAT is done in phases to allow for verification of the system, early resolution of any technical issues, and initial science exploitation. Early science can be done with parts of the array as they are commissioned, even as construction continues. AR1 consists of 16 receptors, AR2 of 32 and AR3 of 64, expected to be in place by late 2017.
- In May 2016, more than 150 researchers and students, two-thirds from South Africa, met in Stellenbosch to discuss and update the MeerKAT science program. This will consist of already approved “large survey projects”, plus “open time” available for new projects. An engineering test image, produced with only 4 dishes, was made available just before that meeting.
- “The scientists gathered at the May meeting were impressed to see what 4 MeerKAT dishes could do,” says Dr Fernando Camilo, SKA South Africa Chief Scientist. “They will be astonished at today’s exceptionally beautiful images, which demonstrate that MeerKAT has joined the big leagues of world radio astronomy”.
Figure 83: MeerKAT First Light image. Each white dot represents the intensity of radio waves recorded with 16 dishes of the MeerKAT telescope in the Karoo (when completed, MeerKAT will consist of 64 dishes and associated systems). More than 1300 individual objects – galaxies in the distant universe – are seen in this image (image credit: SKA Africa)
Figure 84: View showing 10% of the full MeerKAT First Light radio image. More than 200 astronomical radio sources (white dots) are visible in this image, where prior to MeerKAT only five were known (indicated by violet circles). This image spans about the area of the Earth’s moon (image credit: SKA Africa)
• March 31,2014: General Dynamics SATCOM Technologies, a part of General Dynamics Mission Systems, and Stratosat Datacom (Pty) Ltd., a South African company and the prime contractor for this project, have installed the first of the 64 MeerKAT radio telescope antennas to form the MeerKAT array. The array, located in South Africa’s Karoo region, is a technologically advanced radio telescope designed to detect and map radio-frequency signals coming from the furthest reaches of the universe. 113)
- The MeerKAT array will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere and represents the first significant installation of the SKA (Square Kilometer Array) that is scheduled for completion in 2024.
Figure 85: On March 27th 2014, the first General Dynamics-built antenna for the MeerKAT radio telescope was launched in South Africa. When completed, the MeerKAT array will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere (image credit: SKA South Africa)
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101) ”South Africa’s MeerKAT discovers giant radio bubbles at centre of Milky Way,” SKA, 11 September 2019, URL: https://www.ska.ac.za/south-africas-meerkat-discovers-giant-radio-bubbles-at-centre-of-milky-way/
102) I. Heywood, F. Camilo, [....] L. P. Williams, ”Inflation of 430-parsec bipolar radio bubbles in the Galactic Center by an energetic event,” Nature Letter, Volume 573, pp: 235-237, Published: 11 September 2019, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1532-5
103) ”Statement by South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology,” NRF/SARAO, 25 February 2019, Issued by the Ministry of Science and Technology, URL: http://www.ska.ac.za/media-releases/statement-by-south-africas-minister-of-science-and-technology/
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105) ”SARAO celebrates the successful completion of the SKA Telescope Manager Critical Design Review,” SKA Africa Media Release, 17 August 2018, URL: http://www.ska.ac.za/sarao-celebrates-the-successful-completion-of-the-ska-telescope-manager-critical-design-review/
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107) ”MeerKAT radio telescope inaugurated in South Africa – reveals clearest view yet of center of the Milky Way,” SKA Africa, 13 July 2018, URL: http://www.ska.ac.za/media-releases/meerkat-radio-telescope-inaugurated-in-south-africa-reveals-clearest-view-yet-of-center-of-the-milky-way/
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111) ”SKA precursor telescope MeerKAT releases new images using its current 32 antennas,” SKA Africa Media Release, 19 May 2017, URL: https://www.skatelescope.org/news/ska-precursor-telescope-meerkat-releases-new-1-5-images-using-current-32-antennas/
112) ”MeerKAT joins the ranks of the world’s great scientific instruments through its First Light image,” SKA Africa Media Release, 16 July 2016, URL: http://www.ska.ac.za/media-releases/meerkat-joins-the-ranks-of-the-worlds-great-scientific-instruments-through-its-first-light-image/
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (email@example.com).
SKA Location Overall Status Australia Antenna Array ASKAP development and mission status
Africa Radio Telescope Array MeerKAT development and mission status References Back to top