By Scott Hamilton
Senior Expert Emerging Technologies
In November 2020, the Arecibo Observatory’s massive telescope collapsed, destroying the largest telescope in the world. It was a great loss to astronomy on a global scale, but fear not, new and larger telescopes have been in development for a number of years and on June 29, 2021, the green light was given to begin construction of the world’s largest radio telescope array. The SKA Observatory has been in planning since October 2013, by the SKA Organization, a private, non-profit company responsible for the design phase of the telescope.
After the initial design phase was complete, formal negotiations began to draft the SKA Observatory Convention, an international group lead by Italy and officially signed March 12, 2019, in Rome. Seven countries formed the initial convention: Australia, China, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Other participating nations are expected to join as the project continues.
The official launch of the SKA Observatory (SKAO) occurred as the treaty was ratified during the first meeting of the governing body, February 3-4, 2021, making it the second intergovernmental organization in the world dedicated to astronomy, the first being the European Southern Observatory (ESO).
At the historic meeting of the SKAO council on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, the recently formed alliance saw its member states approve the start of construction of the first telescopes in Australia and South Africa. These two telescopes, currently designated SKA-Low and SKA-Mid, will be the two largest and most complex radio telescopes ever built. These are the first stages of a project that involved seven years, 500 experts, 20 countries and more than 100 institutions, including research labs, universities and private companies around the world.
SKAO Director-General Professor Philip Diamond stated, “I am ecstatic. This moment has been 30 years in the making. 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.”
The SKA project has made impressive progress in recent months including the successful ratification of the SKAO Treaty by all seven initial signatories. France, Spain and Switzerland are in negotiations to join the treaty and Canada, Germany, India and Sweden took part in the design of the telescope. The first significant activity on site is due to happen early next year, lasting through 2028. However, due to the nature of radio telescope arrays, astronomers will be able to begin using the array in the next few years, utilizing a subset of the array as it is being constructed. The array has an expected lifetime of 50 years or more. The Arecibo Observatory was online from 1963 until its collapse in 2020, putting it at 57 years in operation, so I would say the life expectancy of SKAO is on par with past observatories.
Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.
Scott Hamilton is a Senior Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.