Australia is a member of the international organisation established to build and operate the world’s most powerful radio astronomy facility, the SKA Observatory (SKAO).
The SKA Observatory will consist of two radio-telescopes, one in Australia (SKA-Low), and one in South Africa (SKA-Mid). The two telescopes will observe the sky at different radio frequencies and complement each other scientifically.
Building the telescopes of tomorrow
Our role in the SKA project builds on decades of Australian ingenuity that places us among the best in the world in developing technologies for radio astronomy and operating national facilities for the benefit of scientific and broader communities.
As well as playing the major role of developing the site for the SKA-Low telescope in Australia, we've been involved in the SKA project since its conception and we've worked with industry, universities and other key science organisations on the final design, prototyping and testing of elements for the SKA telescopes.
Our current involvement in the project includes:
- Preparing Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, our Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory to host the SKA-Low Telescope.
- Helping build the SKA-Low Telescope and working with industry and research partners to develop SKA technology and infrastructure.
- Operating the SKA-Low Telescope as the SKAO's operations partner in Australia.
- Preparing for SKA science through our expertise across radio astronomy and our involvement in planning for the SKA across many science working groups.
We will be the operating partner for the SKA-Low telescope, as well as hosting the telescope itself at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, our Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia.
SKA-Low will consist of an array of 131,072 Christmas tree-shaped antennas, grouped in 512 stations, each with 256 antennas. A number of these antenna stations will be placed in the centre and the rest will span out along three spiral arms, stretching 74 kilometres end to end. SKA-Low will operate at frequencies between 50 and 350 MHz, similar to FM radio and TV broadcasts.
In addition to our role as operations partner and managers of the telescope site, we are also contributing to the construction of the SKA-Low Telescope:
- Led the infrastructure design work and are now working with industry partners to manage the site infrastructure construction process. This includes our work with industry partner Aurecon to manage the infrastructure contracts in Australia, including the contract with Australian-based business Ventia.
- Working with university and industry partners to oversee the installation of SKA-Low antenna stations.
- Managing the assembly, integration and verification process – the work to connect and check all of the individual sub systems and products are working correctly – together with international institutions.
- Working with international research institutions to develop the central signal processing system of the telescope, the backend of the telescope that takes the signals from each antenna station and combines them before sending that information to the science data processing system.
- Working with university partners to design the science data processing system, the supercomputer software that takes the data from the telescope and outputs the images astronomers use to study the Universe.
SKA-Mid will be located in the Karoo region of South Africa. It will consist of an array of 197 dish antennas, each 15 metres in diameter, with 150 kilometres separating the two most distant dishes. SKA-Mid will operate between 350 MHz and 14 GHz.
This is radio astronomy on an immense scale. Spreading thousands of antennas over huge distances will enable very fine resolution imaging, revealing the Universe in more detail than we've ever seen before. The SKA will give astronomers insight into the formation and evolution of the first stars and galaxies, the role of cosmic magnetism, the nature of gravity, and possibly even life beyond Earth.
World-class astronomy in the Australian outback: our radio astronomy observatory on Wajarri Country
The SKA project is Australia's first opportunity to co-host a mega science facility and we're looking forward to hosting SKA-Low at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, our Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.
With the support of the Australian and Western Australian Governments, we established the observatory site in 2009. Like light pollution in big cities limits how much of the night sky you can see with your eyes or with an optical telescope, cities and towns also generate radio interference that limits what radio telescopes can 'see'.
The Murchison region was selected for its ideal vantage point from which the SKA-Low telescope and its Australian precursor telescopes could observe the best area of the sky. The weather patterns are relatively stable, and it is accessible to the city of Geraldton though sufficiently far enough away from city-generated radio frequency interference. The SKA project is a multi-generational project that will operate for at least 50 years, so these environmental and socio-geographic considerations were critical in site selection.
In 2011 the Australian Communications and Media Authority, supported by the Western Australian government, created the Australian Radio-Quiet Zone WA (ARQZWA). The ARQZWA is centred on the observatory location with the inner zone extending to a 70 km radius, and for the lowest frequency range extending to a 260 km radius. The radio quiet zone in Western Australia allows the careful management of radio frequency emissions to protect the telescopes and allow other activities to exist in the region.
The observatory also enjoys strong support from the local community, including the Wajarri Yamaji who are the Traditional Owners and native title holders of the site.
Protecting cultural heritage
The SKA-Low telescope has a relatively light impact on the land and there is great deal of flexibility in positioning SKA infrastructure, which means significant heritage sites can be avoided. CSIRO and our SKA project partners recognise the Wajarri Yamaji as the Traditional Owners and native title holders of the site and have been proactive in protecting Wajarri heritage for the SKA project.
Wajarri Elders and heritage experts, along with archaeologists, ethnologists, Department of Industry representatives and CSIRO staff have carefully walked across over 400km of the land that’s proposed for SKA construction.
In the walkovers areas are categorised into levels of significance and recorded and alternative locations and routes are examined to avoid any impact on the heritage areas. Preservation zones are already being created and these areas are excluded from the SKA project.
A Cultural Heritage Management Plan will control future project activities to ensure ongoing protection for Wajarri Yamaji heritage. During the construction phase, Wajarri site monitors will track and witness construction activities to ensure day-to-day compliance with the Plan. The Wajarri Yamaji will also continue to be able to access the vast majority of the observatory area to exercise their native title rights.
The Australian SKA Office and CSIRO have negotiated an expanded Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with the Wajarri Yamaji for SKA-Low construction. This agreement will provide sustainable and intergenerational benefits in areas such as enterprise and training, education and culture and builds on the original ILUA negotiated for the establishment of the observatory in 2009.
Managing the data deluge
The SKA telescopes will generate data on the scale of petabits, or a million billion bits, per second – more than the global internet rate today. We're building supercomputers to process the enormous amounts of data.
Initially, the data from the SKA-Low antennas in Western Australia will flow into a custom supercomputing facility on site in the Murchison where initial processing of the data will take place. From there, it will be transferred via fibre-optic cable to the Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre in Perth for further processing and imaging. The SKA-Low telescope will generate 300 petabytes of data per year matched by SKA-Mid in South Africa.
Working with the Australian SKA Office and ICRAR in Perth, we are establishing an SKA Regional Centre (SRC), the AusSRC[Link will open in a new window]. Telescope data is likely to be transferred to international telescope users via the international SRC network.
Our ASKAP radio telescope is demonstrating the high-performance processing required to meet the SKA project data challenges. Using Pawsey supercomputers and custom software developed at CSIRO, we produce science-ready datasets of many Terabytes for each observation. These data are made freely available to the global astronomy community through ASKAP's science archive.
We acknowledge the Wajarri Yamaji as the Traditional Owners and native title holders of Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.