SKA Project Director's Update - March 2020

David Luchetti shares the latest updates from the Australian Square Kilometre Array Office and international teams.

SKALA 4.1 antennas. Image credit: ICRAR

Welcome to the Australian SKA Project Director’s Update, where I give a rundown on developments in building the next generation of radio astronomy capability.

Let me start this update by wishing you and the people in your lives all the best during this unprecedented time. While I am keen to keep providing updates on progress towards the SKA, I am also very conscious of the hardships many are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please keep safe and healthy, as Australians and people around the world look to take on this challenge together.

The SKA is a big family spanning 13 member countries and the effects of COVID-19 are being felt throughout. The number one priority of governments around the world is to stop its spread, find an effective vaccine and support the best possible return to normality. Representatives of the SKA member countries are continuing to meet regularly to plan a path forward for the project. There is goodwill in the partnership and we will work together to keep the project moving as best as possible.

At the most recent SKA Organisation Board meeting in February, the Board agreed to develop the SKA Construction Proposal with the aim of realising the full Phase 1 scope of the SKA. That is the entire 130,000 antennas in Australia and 200 dishes in South Africa in the current baseline design. The SKA is a project that reflects the fundamental optimism and ambition of humanity. It has been conceptualised and planned for decades, and has an intended life-span of many decades to come. While we’re yet to see if the pandemic will have any effect on the SKA schedule, preparatory work continues.

The SKA’s Head Office near Manchester is currently developing the Construction Proposal and Observatory Establishment and Delivery Plan for review by the partner governments. It is no small task bringing such a complex instrument to a design maturity ready for construction to begin.

My office, and leading Australian partners including CSIRO and ICRAR, also continue to work closely with the Head Office on all aspects of SKA construction readiness and on our own domestic preparations to host the SKA-Low telescope. The astronomy community has been utilising videoconferences for a number of years, so naturally this continues as a way of remaining productive. Although I am seeing more living rooms in the backgrounds these days!

I’m pleased to report that COVID-19 didn’t impact Astrofest 2020, conducted in Perth on 29 February. I understand that around 4,500 people attended the event which showcased all forms of astronomy. The SKA had a very popular booth and there was a feeling of genuine pride by some of the attendees that the largest scientific instrument in the world would be constructed soon in their backyard (figuratively speaking). Australia’s Astronomer at Large, Professor Fred Watson, also helped out on the booth after giving his presentation on a Universe of Discovery.

Speaking of Fred, the latest edition of his Astronomy in Australia newsletter is now available and gives a great update on many astronomy projects and discoveries. You can also view previous editions and subscribe to future ones.

Finally, for anyone who may be looking for some free entertainment, I highly encourage you to tune in to some webinars that Fred will be conducting over the next couple of months. The first webinar is titled ‘The Universe for Everyone’ and will take place on 1 April at 7.30pm (AEST). Registration is required and you can register via Zoom.

That’s all from me at the moment. I wish you all good health over the coming months.

David Luchetti

SKA Project Director

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