Australian SKA Project Director's Update - December 2018

Another busy few months for the Australian SKA Office. Read what’s been happening with the project in Canberra, Western Australia and internationally.
Project Director David Luchetti sitting in an office, smiling and wearing glasses, a blue shirt and striped blue and red tie.

Australian SKA Project Director, David Luchetti.

Another busy three months have passed at the Australian SKA Office. I’ve been involved in a range of productive discussions over this period; here in Canberra, in West Australia, in Europe and in the UK.

While some mornings I’ve struggled to remember which time zone I’m in, I’m pleased to report favourable progress on many fronts.

This week I chaired the final Regional Stakeholders Group meeting for the year. The meeting was well-attended and provided a valuable chance to keep everyone up to speed on what’s happening on the project.

The 28th meeting of the SKA Board of Directors took place on 13-14 November 2018 at the new SKA Headquarters in Manchester, England. This and other related meetings focussed on the transitional arrangements towards the SKA Observatory, including operational models, staffing, membership structures and procurement. The Board and member countries are working closely with the SKA Organisation to provide greater clarity on these issues.

The SKA Design work is moving ahead. In the next month or two we expect to see the formal conclusion of three more design consortia; the Infrastructure Consortia for both Australia and South Africa, and the Central Signal Processor (CSP)–likened to the central processing ‘brain of the SKA’.

On the design front, last month the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) and the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) announced they would partner on development work towards an Early Production Array for SKA1-Low.

The SKA precursors ASKAP and MWA continue to make a scientific splash. The discovery of 20 new fast radio bursts (FRBs) using ASKAP was published in the prestigious journal, Nature, in October and gained extensive media coverage in science and general news outlets around the world. This discovery by Swinburne University/OzGrav, ICRAR and CSIRO doubles the known number of these mysterious ‘flashes’ from deep space and foreshadows the future discovery potential of the SKA.

Another study published in October described a ‘technological tango’ between ASKAP and MWA to investigate the frequencies of FRBs. The two telescopes looked simultaneously at the same region of the sky, but at different frequencies. This has helped astronomers to rule out some theories on the sources of FRBs.

This research is a great example of collaboration between the teams operating the telescopes, and also demonstrates the uniqueness of the MRO as the only site in the world with this breadth of capability.

The MRO was on show in a different capacity during public events held recently by CSIRO. Around 25 pastoralists and staff from the Murchison Shire took a guided tour of MWA, ASKAP, the MRO control building and the power station, with explanatory talks at each point by CSIRO staff.

Around 200 members of the public enjoyed a similar program at the inaugural MRO public Open Days in early October.

The hardworking team from CSIRO navigated the many logistical challenges to make the two open days a success on all fronts. Curtin University experts provided commentary for MWA and AAVS1, and two of our ASKAO team hosted an information booth to field questions about the SKA project as a whole.

This event was a great opportunity to inform and inspire the Mid-West community about this game-changing science project happening in their backyard.

Spreading the inspiration internationally, the team from CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science were recently involved in a link-up between five locations in four countries to showcase the global SKA project to a group of science advisors from G7 countries.

The briefing connected the SKA headquarters in Manchester with the two future SKA sites– the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and our own MRO– along with CSIRO’s Marsfield office and the FAST telescope in southwest China. The SKA Office was impressed and very grateful for the time and effort put in by all involved – including the team at the MRO battling adverse weather conditions to bring ASKAP to life for the delegates.

In mid-November, Australia’s contribution to the SKA was the subject of a briefing for His Royal Highness The Duke of York, during a visit to the University of Western Australia. ICRAR Executive Director Professor Peter Quinn presented an overview of the SKA project, and the Duke also spent time talking to ICRAR staff and students about their involvement.

Finally, congratulations must go to two ‘close friends’ of the SKA on their recent appointments to new public advocacy roles.

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith (formerly lead ASKAP Project Scientist with CSIRO) has been named Australia’s first Women in STEM Ambassador. Lisa will continue to advocate for women and girls in science, building on broader efforts to address gender equity issues in science.

Eminent optical astronomer and science broadcaster, Professor Fred Watson AO, was appointed in September as Australia’s first Astronomer-at-large. Fred will use his expertise to promote our astronomy and astrophysics capabilities to the world.

I am sure both Lisa and Fred will continue to inspire young people, including young women, to get involved in astronomy and other areas of science, technology, engineering and maths.

This will be my last message for 2018, so as another year ends, I’d like to wish everyone a very happy and safe festive season. I look forward to a successful and prosperous 2019.


David Luchetti

Australian SKA Project Director

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