Australian SKA Project Director's Update – June 2019

The SKA is closer to becoming a reality as Australia and 6 other countries sign the SKA Observatory Convention. Read more about the treaty, design developments and research breakthroughs.

Photo of delegates at convention signing.

Delegates from the 7 signatory countries, including Australia’s Ambassador to Italy, Dr Greg French (right), at the convention signing in March.

The last few months have been a busy time for us here in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) office, but all a worthwhile effort. Eight years since the Square Kilometre Array Organisation was formed, we have made a leap forward with Australia and six other countries signing the SKA Observatory Convention.

This treaty will commit the signatories to building and operating the telescope, bringing it ever closer to becoming a reality.

International signatories

On 12 March, I was in Rome to see Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, China, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal sign the Convention. Dr Greg French, Australian Ambassador to Italy, proudly signed on behalf of Australia. He was an ideal representative for the job, given his background in physics before moving to the diplomatic corps.

I was joined by Ms Leonie Boddington, a member of the Wajarri Yamaji people, the traditional owners of the land on which the SKA will be built. This was a significant event for the Wajarri community as well. We thank them for their continued support and recognise the importance of the stars in their culture and traditions.

The Convention will need to be ratified by the signatory nations over the next year. Once the three host countries plus two more have passed it through their parliaments, the Square Kilometre Array Observatory will officially come into being to govern telescope construction and operations. There’s plenty of potential for other nations to join the Observatory to help advance the project even further, even faster.

Critical design reviews

Closer to home, the Infrastructure Australia consortium led by CSIRO and Aurecon recently passed its critical design review (CDR). This achievement is shared not only with the heavyweights leading the consortium, but also the small businesses that contributed their local and technical knowledge to solutions including power and access to the site.

The Science Data Processor (SDP) has also passed its CDR, confirming how we will handle the massive volume of information that SKA will provide. The SDP will be responsible for translating the raw signals that have been tidied up on site, and turning them into scientific data that astronomers can interpret. The supercomputer at the centre of the design will be more powerful than any currently in existence, reaching processor speeds of 250 PFlops. The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth has set aside space to house this machine. It will sit alongside the smaller Galaxy supercomputer, currently used to process the signals from existing telescopes at the MRO. Almost all of the twelve consortia have now finished their CDRs. Once these and a comprehensive review of all the designs are completed, the excitement of construction can begin!

Research breakthroughs

SKA is an incredibly ambitious project, not least of all for the technological challenges we face. Fortunately, the hundreds of scientists and engineers working directly with the project are more than up to the task. One recent example is the successful signal test conducted by AARNet and CISCO, which transferred data through optic fibres at speeds of up to 600 Gbps. Until now these speeds were unprecedented, but with industry’s help they’ll become the norm for big data projects like SKA.

While the SKA Observatory starts to take shape, Australia’s two leading radio astronomy agencies are making strides forward in research. Firstly, I’d like to congratulate CSIRO on integrating the final eight dishes of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), bringing the total to 36. With the array complete, astronomers can begin to tune the whole telescope to achieve the remarkable observations that are planned. So far, all 36 dishes have been used to construct a single beam image, providing incredibly high resolution of the radio galaxy, Fornax A. Combined with the anticipated rapid surveys of the southern skies, ASKAP will undoubtedly be one of the most sophisticated radio telescopes in the world, and a vital precursor for the SKA.

Additionally, recently published work led by researchers from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research has identified a black hole behaving like nothing seen before. In 2015, the black hole V404 Cygni was observed firing jets of plasma into space as it consumed a nearby star. However, instead of these jets propelling perpendicular to the black hole’s accretion disk, they appeared to be rapidly wobbling. The unprecedented speed of this wobbling needed some imaging innovation to capture, requiring numerous short clips of the black hole compared to the traditional time lapse. Ultimately, the researchers explained the phenomenon using Einstein’s theory of relativity, suggesting the black hole was so dense that it ruptures space-time. I look forward to more remarkable findings like these when astronomers can make use of SKA’s incredible sensitivity and survey speeds.

SKA Board meeting

The 29th SKA Board meeting took place on March 26 and 27 in Manchester. With the Convention signed, there was a sense of excitement in the air! All members were represented at the meeting. The major discussions this time were around how the members will deliver the expertise and resources the telescope needs to function. I’d also like to welcome the Organisation’s newest members to the team, Germany’s Max Planck Society. I look forward to the massive experience they will bring to the SKA.

With so much happening recently, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the future of SKA. I’d like to thank all the dedicated scientists, engineers and colleagues that have helped to bring us this far.

In closing, the Hon Karen Andrews MP was recently reappointed as the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology. We look forward to working with the Minister to realise all of the benefits of the SKA.


David Luchetti

Australian SKA Project Director

Photo of David Luchetti

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