Construction begins on the ‘ear’ that will listen to the Universe

A composite image of the future SKA telescopes, blending what already exists on site with artist's impressions. From left: an artist's impression of the future SKA-mid dishes blend into the existing precursor MeerKAT telescope dishes in South Africa. From right: an artist's impression of the future SKA-low stations blends into the existing AAVS2.0 prototype station in Australia

The construction of 2 next-generation radio astronomy telescopes from the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) has begun on-site in Australia and South Africa.

Co-funded by the UK, the SKA telescopes will tackle some of the most fundamental scientific questions of our time.

From the exploration of the early Universe when the very first stars and galaxies formed to the existence of extra-terrestrial life.

Complementary telescopes

The 2 complementary telescopes will be brought to life over the coming decade:

  • 133 SKA dishes will be added to the existing 64 of a SKA-precursor telescope, forming a mid-frequency instrument in South Africa
  • more than 130,000 antennas will be built to form a low-frequency telescope array in Western Australia

The SKAO will combine the signals received from thousands of small antennas and hundreds of dishes spread over several thousand kilometres and different continents, to simulate a single giant radio telescope.

In addition to co-funding the project, the UK is also leading the development of the massive software infrastructure that will be used to analyse the data coming to Earth from the stars.

Answering crucial questions about the early Universe

Scientists will use the SKA telescopes over the course of their expected 50-year lifespans to unravel some of the most pressing questions in astrophysics:

  • study the birth and evolution of galaxies, by looking at galaxies across the history of the Universe
  • investigate the dark energy that is proposed to accelerate the expansion of the Universe
  • test Einstein’s theory of general relativity by investigating gravity around black holes, and timing pulsars
  • detect signals intentionally produced by an advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence, evidence that we are not alone in the Universe

Step change in radio astronomy

Since global construction activities started in July 2021, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has awarded several UK institutions more than £15 million.

This funding will build the ‘brain’ of the SKA telescopes, the software system making observations possible.

Professor Mark Thomson, STFC Executive Chair, said:

Once constructed, the Square Kilometre Array Observatory is going to be one of the world’s key large-scale scientific instruments, delivering a massive step change in radio astronomy.

The UK has a crucial role for the future operation of the observatory, both by hosting the SKA headquarters in Jodrell Bank in Cheshire and by leading the complex software tools for the telescopes in Australia and South Africa.

This construction commencement marks the start of the global efforts to explore the evolution of the early Universe with unprecedented precision, with the UK astronomy community benefitting from SKAO’s science capabilities for decades to come.

UK’s leading role in developing SKAO telescopes

Together, the SKA telescopes will form the world’s largest and most capable radio astronomy instrument.

It will be managed by the UK-hosted SKAO global headquarters at Jodrell Bank near Manchester.

The UK is 1 of the 7 founding countries involved in creating the SKAO, the intergovernmental organisation that will oversee the delivery of the telescopes.

It is also 1 of the 3 host countries, with the headquarters based at Jodrell Bank in Manchester, co-funded by the UK government through STFC.

Home to more than 150 experts

The SKAO global headquarters is home to more than 150 experts in:

  • science
  • engineering
  • project management
  • policy
  • international law
  • many other specialties

The UK government, through STFC, is the largest contributor to SKAO, committing to 15% of the cost of constructing the SKAO from 2021 to 2030.

Several UK universities and institutions are involved with the design of the SKAO, and include:

  • University of Cambridge
  • The University of Manchester
  • University of Oxford
  • STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), Harwell Campus
  • STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory, Liverpool City Region
  • STFC’s Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), Edinburgh

One step closer to operation

Science and Space Minister George Freeman said:

As the UK we are very proud to be one of the 3 core host partners of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory.

I would like to congratulate colleagues in South Africa and Australia on achieving this latest milestone and helping to bring us one step closer to the operation of this exciting observatory.

After construction completion, the 2 complementary telescopes will be the ‘ears’ on either side of the planet allowing us to listen to those murmurings from the deep Universe.

As the home of the control centre for the observatory, the UK is helping lay the foundation for new galaxy-level discoveries through radio astronomy.

Scientists, engineers and researchers across UK industry and academia are working to deliver the working ‘brain’ behind the SKA telescopes, the software systems which make space observations possible and allow us to make sense of what we see and hear.

All of these efforts help to channel more funds, jobs, careers, opportunities and innovation both into the UK economy, but just as importantly into the global commercial space science economy.

With its extremely high resolution and sensitivity, the SKA radio telescope will allow scientists to study the Universe in more detail than ever before.

Further information

Scientists and engineers at UK universities and institutions are heavily involved in the design of the SKAO.

Science data processor and analysis software

Software developers and astronomers at University of Cambridge, STFC RAL Space and University of Oxford are leading the development of the science data processor and analysis software.

These are required to process the extreme rates of raw data from the SKA telescopes into science outputs.

The teams ensure the processor is robust, resilient, easy-to-use and interfaces seamlessly with the other software and hardware components of the SKA.

Observation preparation, design, and execution systems

The UK ATC is leading the development of the observatory science operations systems as part of the Indian-led observatory monitoring and control software package.

The team is building the observation preparation, design, and execution systems following the entire workflow from an observer proposing observations through to an operator scheduling and executing them on the telescope.

Monitor, control, and calibration subsystem

The UK is also leading on the design of a key component of the low-frequency telescope, known as the Monitor, Control, and Calibration Subsystem (MCCS).

MCCS performs control and monitoring of both the hardware and software components of the individual elements of the low-frequency telescope along with management and calibration of the observations.

The universities of Manchester and Oxford, alongside STFC’s Technology Department and Daresbury Laboratory, are part of the team.

The team is creating a fully tested system ready to go live as soon as the antennas come online.

Powerful and precise pulsar search subsystem

Astronomers and software engineers at the universities of Manchester and Oxford are leading the teams which are developing the powerful and precise pulsar search subsystem.

This is for both the low and mid-frequency telescopes.

This software will enable the telescopes to be used to search thousands of positions on the sky at once to identify large numbers of new pulsars.

It will effectively create a galaxy-scale gravitational wave detector.

Top image:  A composite image of the future SKA telescopes, blending what already exists on site with artist's impressions. From left: an artist's impression of the future SKA-mid dishes blend into the existing precursor MeerKAT telescope dishes in South Africa. From right: an artist's impression of the future SKA-low stations blends into the existing AAVS2.0 prototype station in Australia. Credit: SKAO

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