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Splitting the SKA – why a dual-site setup is a win for everyone

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a concept that’s been slowly growing and evolving since 1991. But last night (AEST) this ambitious project took a giant leap towards reality with the announcement of…

SKA infrastructure will be concentrated in South Africa with some receivers to be placed in Australia and New Zealand. Dr Nadeem Oozeer

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a concept that’s been slowly growing and evolving since 1991. But last night (AEST) this ambitious project took a giant leap towards reality with the announcement of a SKA site decision.

The decision was a complex one, and one which recognised the enormous amount of international investment needed to make the SKA happen: the array will be split between Africa and Australia/New Zealand.

What this does not mean is that half the telescope will be built on each continent. Each site will get a full square kilometre of collecting area, with the full scientific functionality originally envisaged.

However, the SKA’s science goals require a facility that can tune into radio waves ranging from 70 MHz to more than 10,000 MHz. It’s impossible for any single technology to cover this vast range, so the plan has always been to build two or even three different types of antennas which, together, can span the full range needed.

What the SKA board has decided is to put different technologies in different places, playing to the strengths of each site.

The lowest frequency component, consisting of antennas that do not move or steer and that can collect signals from the whole sky at once, will be built in Australia and New Zealand.

This capitalises on the superb “radio quietness” of the SKA core planned for Murchison in outback Western Australia - one of the few places on the planet that isn’t polluted by FM radio and other artificial signals in this low-frequency band.

The higher-frequency technology, consisting of more traditional, steerable dishes such as the one at Parkes, New South Wales, will be built in Africa. This naturally extends the MeerKAT array of dishes already under construction in the Karoo desert region of South Africa.

The remaining pieces of the puzzle are “phased array feeds”, the fish-eye lens technology being developed by CSIRO for their Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) in Western Australia.

This technology will be further developed and expanded in Australia and New Zealand, and then possibly later installed on dishes in Africa. Australian and New Zealand technology on an African telescope truly is a win-win scenario.

Going forward, what this all means is the money committed to construction by all the SKA’s international partners can now begin to flow. The hard-working engineers and scientists in Australia and New Zealand and in Africa can go back to collaborating rather than competing.

And the SKA will attract brilliant young researchers from around the world to help solve the daunting technological challenges ahead of us.

Few people will appreciate the small teams at the heart of the two site bids who have sunk years of their lives into this project. For Australia and New Zealand, special mention must go to the extraordinary CSIRO team lead by Brian Boyle, Michelle Storey, Phil Diamond and Lisa Harvey-Smith, who made a superb case for Australia and New Zealand to host the SKA.

Africa, led by Justin Jonas and Bernie Fanaroff, must also be congratulated, for creating a thriving African radio astronomy community and a stellar SKA site bid from scratch in barely ten years.

The governments involved have also all been extremely supportive: a positive sign that amid all the other pressures and challenges, basic research and cosmic discovery still have a place in our nations' priorities.

I am excited that the SKA now looks like it’s really going to happen. I can’t wait to point it at my favourite stars and galaxies and to get the data in my hands!

This article appears courtesy of the Australian Science Media Centre.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    The amount of money being spent on this project (about $9 billion) is not that great compared to other projects taking place in Australia, particularly in the mining industry. However, most of the equipment being used in mining is imported, most of the technology is imported, and more of the workforce is being imported also, with many of these workers sending the majority of their wages back home and spending very little in Australia.

    Australia is only skimming the surface of what it could have gained from the mining boom, and this project of the SKA could produce minimal gains for Australia also. It becomes an important question of what management systems are in place to make this project worthwhile for Australians, (and knowing where our universe begins and ends will not do much for the average Australian).

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    1. Norm Stone

      Farmer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Just before you go completely negative consider that whatever the cost the returns for us are the same as for everyone else in the world. Some astonishing scientific knowledge. Just for a change a clearly equable and sensible decision has been made. Stop trying to draw analogies with our failure to capitalise on the mining boom - shipping huge quantities of dirt to the other side of the world is a little different to looking at the origins of the universe. Anyway, the mining will be over by the time the SKA starts up.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Norm Stone

      I am somewhat cynical of large scale projects, and how much such projects benefit people. In retrospect, Australia got very little from the mining boom, considering the levels of state and federal debt, and considering our current trade deficit.

      I have seen too many large scale mining and tourist projects that promised much, but eventually left behind debt.

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    3. Glenn Tamblyn

      Mechanical Engineer, Director

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale.

      Although some of the high tech componentry may come from overseas, dunno about that, any project like this will include a significant component of more mundane infrastructure - power systems & cabling, safety systems, switching gear, electrical cabinetry, buildings, roads etc. Most of those types of things don't need to be or can't be imported. So Australia will get economic benefit and jobs, out of proportion to our component of the committed investment as part of the international partnership.

      It may well even return to our economy enough to defray our contribution to the costs. Wouldn't you like to be the researcher who could go to the Science Minister and say 'we are part of a major, ground breaking, incredibly important advance in the most fundamental science. And it will cost us hardly anything'. I think the minister would have a smile on their face.

      The real return for Australia, as for the rest of the world, is the Science the project will deliver.

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    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      Whether Australia gets any economic benefits depends on how the project is managed. If it is not managed properly, Australia could end up footing many of the bills, while most of the economic benefits go elsewhere.

      As for building infrastructure such as roads to create jobs, and a new road costs about $1 million per km plus ongoing maintenance costs. There has to be ongoing economic benefits to make building a road economically worthwhile, or it becomes more economic to pay people to be on the dole.

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    5. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      'Dale', my guess is you're cynical, period.

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    6. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      'Dale', sorry, we simply do not live on this lonely little island way down here by ourselves, worried about who might steal the apples from our orchard.

      If we don't want to pay our share we have no grounds for seeking credit.

      It's all give and take, isn't it? That's the way the world goes around.

      By participating we are all far better off, on all points.

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    7. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      If the SKA is not to become an expensive white elephant for Australia, it depends on how well it is managed, and how much Australia allows itself to be manipulated and controlled by multinational consortiums.

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  2. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    According to Wikipedia, the SKA is projected to cost €1.5 billion for phases 1 and 2 completing in 2024. That's about $1.9 billion Australian dollars.

    That's really not that much money for a major international project spanning decades and delivering significant returns in RF and radio astronomy technology, high performance computing, communications and of course its fundamental value to basic astrophysics research.

    It's only a little bit more than the cost of bloody Myki.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Luke Weston

      But how much will Australia get back, compared to how much Australia has to put in. So much depends on the management of the project, and how much say Australia has.

      For example, if something is invented or developed in Australia by an Australian company for the SKA project, will they be able to claim patent rights, or will the patent rights be claimed by the SKA consortium?

      Or, does Australia receive some payment for having part of the SKA project located here. I doubt the full infrastructure costs will be covered by the SKA consortium, and the Australian taxpayer will have to eventually pay for a fair sized chunk of it.

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    2. Ian Smith

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Since when has scientific research been a waste of money?

      Anyone remember when the internet was some wired geek thing that had no use in real life?

      "does Australia receive some payment for having part of the SKA project located here"

      If they're not already Australia should host it for free.

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