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UK becomes home to the HQ of the new international organisation behind the World's biggest ever radio telescope

12 March 2019

At a treaty signing in Rome today the UK has formally become the home of the new international organisation behind what will soon be the World’s biggest ever radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The UK is one of the seven founding countries involved in the SKA Project creating the intergovernmental organisation that will oversee the delivery of the SKA. Once operational the SKA will improve our understanding of the evolution of the Universe and help us to map hundreds of millions of galaxies

The treaty signing also establishes the siting of the international nerve centre of this project at Jodrell Bank in the UK.

UK Business Secretary Greg Clark said:
“Science has no borders and the UK’s hosting of the global HQ of this international project demonstrates our leading position and influence in scientific collaboration and exploration.

“For generations Jodrell Bank has inspired young people and inspired children to take an interest in science and will now inspire the next generation of scientists.

“This Government, through our modern Industrial Strategy is giving the biggest boost to research and development funding in UK history to ensure we inspire our young people.”

In addition to the UK’s financial contribution to the design, construction and operation of the SKA, the UK’s technical and scientific expertise will be built into the SKA’s DNA.

Anna Scaife, Professor of Radio Astronomy at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics said of the announcement "Today is a landmark date for one of the great global scientific undertakings of the 21st century. Signing the treaty for SKA brings us closer to answering some of the most important questions in advancing our understanding of the Universe. It's enormously exciting for the UK astronomy community to be a key partner in this project.

For me, the SKA project is not only about astronomy but also about pushing the boundaries of computing and technology. The technological solutions we create to detect signals from the furthest depths of the Universe are made possible only by looking beyond what is currently available here on Earth."

Radio astronomy allows us to study the celestial objects that give off radio waves. With radio astronomy, we study astronomical phenomena that are often invisible or hidden in other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. There is no other way to ‘see’ these objects.

The SKA will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, stretching technology to its limits and UK engineers, technologists and astronomers will be at the forefront of making this project a success. Scientists and engineers at UK universities and institutions are involved right across the design of the SKA including from the Universities of Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge and from the UKRI STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory, STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre.

UK industry has also been involved with the design of the SKA with over fifty UK companies awarded contracts in systems engineering, project management and software development.

In addition the SKA project offers the UK astronomy research community the opportunity to address some of the fundamental questions in research on the origin and evolution of the Universe. At the same time the technical innovations needed for the project will transform the capabilities of high-performance computing.

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said: "The Square Kilometre Array will help answer fundamental questions about the nature and the history of the Universe. In addition to providing insights into the wonders of the Universe, the SKA, through its development of improved methods to handle massive amounts of astronomical data, will drive advances in computing, information technology and big data processing.

"Today's signing reinforces the UK's position in international astronomy, and UKRI's commitment to maintaining and strengthening relationships with researchers across the globe."

Thanks to the investment of over £100m that the UK has made in to the SKA project British scientists and industry partners have been helping to develop the central computing and data handling systems which will read the huge volume of new data that will be produced by the project, meaning this project could lead to faster smartphones and increased internet speeds across the UK in the future.

Dr Alan Bridger is Head of Software at STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC) and his team have been actively involved in the initial stages of the SKA “In pre-construction our team led the design, with the involvement of UK industry and international partners, of the very important "Observation Management" part of the SKA software system, a key component of a successful world-class observatory. We have also contributed valuable systems engineering support to a number of other UK teams. In the current "bridging" period we are contributing to finalising the overall software architecture and playing key roles in helping to establish the software development processes and infrastructure.”

From a science point of view Dr Pamela Klaassen, Instrument scientist at STFC’s UK ATC said “As someone who studies the gas dynamics in star forming regions I cannot wait for SKA to become operational as it will allow me to study the building blocks of planets and to understand what the coldest material in our Galaxy looks like and how it moves.”

You can learn more on the SKA website.

Images can be downloaded from the SKA multimedia section.

A SKA Media pack is available online.

UK involvement in the SKA

The UK has committed £100 million to the construction of the SKA telescope and its Global Head-quarters – as well as £70 million to its initial operation period.

By the time it is completed SKA will reach across continents and involve thousands of scientists from around the world. It will consist of 130,000 antennas and 133 radio telescope dishes, which will join the 64 dishes of the existing MeerKAT array in South Africa.

A new £16.5 million building has been constructed at Jodrell Bank to house the SKA HQ with funding from BEIS (£9.8M) via the Science and Technology and Facilities Council (STFC), The University of Manchester (£5.7M) and Cheshire East Council (£1M).

The UK has also committed to investing £100m in construction of the SKA - 16% of the total construction cost.

The UK has been leading the design of some of the most important big data elements of the SKA (the Signal and Data Transport network, the Science Data Processor and the pulsar search engine).

The University of Manchester is leading the design of the Signal and Data Transport (SADT) networks which will be the backbone of the SKA. It also hosts the SKA HQ on its Jodrell Bank site.

The University of Cambridge is leading the design of the Science Data Processor (SDP), which includes the hardware, software and algorithms needed to produce the science data products required by astronomers.

The University of Oxford is leading the design of the cryostats for the feed for Band 3, 4 & 5 for the SKA-mid dishes.

The Universities of Oxford and Manchester are co-leading the design of the Non-Imaging Processing for the SKA which includes the pulsar search engine and pulsar timing element.

The Universities of Manchester and Cambridge are involved in the design of the Low Frequency Aperture Array (LFAA), as well as the Mid Frequency Aperture Array (MFAA) which is being developed for Phase 2 of the SKA.

The UKRI STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the UK Astronomy Technology Centre are involved across the Telescope Manager, Central Signal Processor (CSP) and SDP.

Last updated: 22 March 2019


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