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With maiden meeting of SKAO Council, process to set up world’s largest radio telescope takes off

India will lead and deliver the Telescope Manager system, nicknamed the 'nervous system' of the SKAO.

Written by Anjali Marar | New Delhi |
Updated: February 4, 2021 11:07:35 pm
An artist's impression of the Square Kilometre Array. (Photo via skatelescope.org)

The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO), proposed to be the ‘world’s largest radio telescope’, finally took the first step towards becoming a reality after the newly-constituted SKAO Council held its maiden virtual meet on Thursday.

The SKAO will be arrays of antennas located in two continents — Africa and Australia — with its global headquarters in the United Kingdom. Once built, the scientific community will be able to use SKAO to look into some of the unexplored areas of the universe and seek answers about its history and evolution, study fundamental physics in extreme environments and know about galaxies over cosmic time.

Along with the three host nations, UK, South Africa and Australia, a number of other countries — India, Germany, France, Canada, China, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland — are the participating member-countries collaborating for this mega science project. Over the period of next 10 years, it is estimated that 1.8 billion Euros will be spent for the construction, commissioning and operations of these mega observatory.

“For our community, this is about participating in one of the great scientific adventures of the coming decades. It is about skills, technology, innovation, industrial return, and spin-offs but fundamentally it is about a wonderful scientific journey that we are now embarking on,” said Prof Philip Diamond, who was appointed as the first director-general of SKAO.

French-born Dr Catherine Cesarsky was appointed the first Chair of the SKAO Council.

Leading the Indian contingent of over 20 institutions of national-repute, supported by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Department of Science and Technology(DST), is Pune-based National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) of TIFR.

“This is a fruition of several years of hard work in designing the observatory, as well as deliberations to set up an intergovernmental treaty organisation. It is exciting to see the project finally taking shape to move towards the construction phase,” Prof Yashwant Gupta, Centre Director of NCRA, told The Indian Express. He was one of the 60-odd members who participated in Thursday’s meeting.

In December last year, with the UK ratifying the international treaty Convention, the SKAO Council — an umbrella body to plan, undertake and oversee the construction of SKAO and also manage operations of the facility in the decades to come — was constituted. Similar ratification was performed earlier by The Netherlands, Portugal, Australia, South Africa and Italy.

Seen as a historic day, the virtual meeting on Thursday reviewed several ongoing works required for SKAO, along with deliberating over project policies and frameworks, which need to be finalised in the coming months.

“In the subsequent meetings to be held later this year, the project proposal and plans for on-site construction will be reviewed and finalised,” added Prof Gupta.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down some of the activities of the SKAO, as both the sites in South Africa and Australia have remained inaccessible for members of other countries for carrying out any ground-based construction, he said. But off-site works such as building prototype hardware and developing software modules have progressed relatively smoothly at the respective member-countries.

India has made significant contributions during the design phase and is looking to be an active member of the construction phase also, with involvement in four work packages covering different aspects of telescope hardware and software elements. India will lead and deliver the Telescope Manager system, nicknamed the ‘nervous system’ of the SKAO.

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