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By  Kirsten Fredericksen 14 March 2024 6 min read

Key points

  • We are helping build the SKA-Low telescope at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, our Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory on Wajarri Country in Western Australia.
  • SKA-Low is one of the two telescopes being built by the SKA Observatory (SKAO) that will revolutionise our understanding of the Universe.
  • Our expertise has been instrumental in the development of the SKA telescopes, and we’re now collaborating with the SKAO in Australia to build and operate the SKA-Low telescope.

The international SKA Observatory (SKAO)’s ambitious science goals require some serious infrastructure. Which is why the SKAO is building the world’s two biggest radio telescopes – SKA-Mid in South Africa, and SKA-Low here in Australia.

When attempting something this big and remote, it’s good to have Australian expertise on hand.

Artist impression of the hexagonal dish-shaped antennas of the SKA-Mid telescope at left blends with an artists’ impression of the tree-shaped silver antennas of the SKA-Low telescope on the right, both under the night sky. Credit: SKAO.
Artists’ impressions of the SKA-Mid telescope (left) and SKA-Low telescope (right) under the night sky. Credit: SKAO. ©  SKAO

Dr Douglas Bock is our Director of Space and Astronomy and the lead Australian scientific representative to the SKAO. He sees the SKA telescopes as an exciting leap forward.

“The SKA era is going to be incredible for radio astronomy. These telescopes will allow astronomers to study the Universe like never before. We'll gain insights into its earliest stages when the first stars and galaxies were forming,” Douglas said.

“The astronomy community has been talking about building telescopes like SKA-Low and SKA-Mid since the 90’s. We’re now seeing the two telescopes become reality.”

Hosting the SKA-Low telescope is bringing benefits into Australia. This will include investment in local industry and contracts for local businesses, as well as jobs within the telescope team that will operate and maintain it over its 50-year lifespan.

So, how are we helping make the SKA telescopes real?

Solving great challenges with Australian innovation

Our ASKAP radio telescope on Wajarri Country under the Milky Way. Credit: Alex Cherney/CSIRO.

Australians have been leaders in radio astronomy since the beginning. Exploring the radio Universe was pioneered here at CSIRO by Dr Joseph Lade Pawsey and Ruby Payne-Scott. It has since exploded into a global field.

Some of the world’s best radio telescopes are here in Australia, including our ASKAP radio telescope and Murriyang, our Parkes radio telescope.

We brought this long experience of developing new technology and building and managing radio observatories in remote locations to the SKA design table. We took a significant role in planning infrastructure, telescope operations, software, and computing for the SKA telescopes.

We also helped secure Australia’s role as a host country for the SKA-Low telescope. We worked together with the Wajarri Yamaji People, Traditional Owners and native title holders of the observatory site, and the Australian and Western Australian governments.

Our outback WA observatory

When you’re searching for a location to build the world’s largest radio telescopes, you need the best places on Earth to look out into the Universe.

Wajarri Country, in Western Australia, was identified as a front runner early in the search for an Australian site for the SKA telescopes. It had clear advantages such as a low population density and very low level of human-generated radio signals.

That search led to the creation of Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, our Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. This was done in partnership with the Wajarri Yamaji and with the support of the Australian and Western Australian governments.

The observatory is now the location of two SKA precursor telescopes: our ASKAP radio telescope and Curtin University’s Murchison Widefield Array. This world class site is also home to Arizona State University's EDGES instrument.

On-site construction of the SKA-Low telescope began in December 2022.

In our role as observatory managers, we mitigate radio emissions from technology (including the radio telescopes themselves). This helps ensure the site remains one of the best places on Earth for radio astronomy.

We also take care of the observatory land. We work alongside Traditional Owners on regeneration and landcare and coordinate with our neighbouring pastoral stations.

Inyarimanha Ilgari Bundara, our Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory hosts world-class instruments like our ASKAP radio telescope.

Sharing sky and stars with the Wajarri Yamaji

The Wajarri Yamaji have been observing the sky from the observatory site for tens of thousands of years. Now, they’re sharing their sky and stars with us.

Our first Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with the Wajarri Yamaji was finalised in 2009. That marked the official establishment of the observatory and kicked off the construction of our ASKAP radio telescope.

A new ILUA was finalised in 2022, enabling the on-site SKA-Low telescope construction to start. The new agreement expanded the observatory and included a Wajarri name for the site – Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, which means ‘sharing the sky and stars’.

As part of our commitment to ensuring the protection of Wajarri heritage at the observatory we’ve walked Country shoulder-to-shoulder with the Wajarri People. Together, Wajarri, CSIRO and the SKAO developed a layout for the SKA-Low telescope. It ensures places of significance and the antennas can co-exist.

There are many intergenerational benefits to the local community that come from hosting the observatory. These include training and education opportunities as well as jobs on Country.

Telescope teamwork with the SKA Observatory

We’re collaborating with the SKAO in Australia to build and operate the SKA-Low telescope. This means that most of the SKA-Low team in Australia are also part of our CSIRO team.

The SKA-Low team have been working hard since on-site construction began on 5 December 2022. Construction work first focused on preparing infrastructure and laying power cables and optical fibre ready for installation of the antennas on site.

In March 2024 the first of more than 130,000 antennas were installed at the observatory for the SKA-Low telescope. This marked a major milestone on the path to the final telescope. Antennas will continue to be installed at a rapid pace, alongside more infrastructure construction. This includes laying further power cabling and optical fibre, adding more of the mesh the antennas sit on, and constructing the buildings that will hold the computers needed to combine the signals from the antennas.

A Wajarri man in a yellow high-vis work shirt marked with the SKA Observatory and CSIRO logos and his name 'Lockie' picks up one of a stack of large silver triangular-shaped SKA-Low antenna pieces.
SKA-Low Field Technician Lockie Ronan with SKA-Low antennas during the installation of the first antennas on site. Credit: SKAO ©  SKAO

Further together

We’re not just working with the SKAO to build and operate the SKA-Low telescope. We’re also collaborating with the SKAO alongside industry and research organisations across other areas of the complex SKA project.

We’re working with local expertise to manage the site infrastructure construction contracts on behalf of the SKAO. We are also helping the SKAO manage the important role of connecting all the individual telescope systems and checking they’re working together correctly.

Plus, we’re joining forces with international research institutions and university partners to develop the ‘brain’ of the SKA-Low telescope. It will combine the data signals received from groups of antennas.

We’re also part of the team developing the supercomputer software that will take that data and create the images astronomers will use to study the Universe.

The off-site computers for the SKA-Low telescope will be hosted by the Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre. And we’re a foundation partner in the Australian SKA Regional Centre, the data conduit between the SKA Observatory and the astronomy community.

It’s an exciting time for Douglas, who’s been working on the SKA project for three decades.

“I’m proud of the leading role we’ve played in the SKA project so far, and it’s really only just the beginning,” Douglas said.

“Building a next-generation telescope is an exciting process to live through, one that takes years, sometimes decades, to fully realise.”

“I can’t wait to see the impact to astronomy from this leap forward in technology as well as the broader benefits of the SKA project.”

We acknowledge the Wajarri Yamaji as Traditional Owners and native title holders of Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site. 

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