13 mins read 19 Feb 2021

The Road that leads to the Square Kilometre Array

Earlier this month, an important milestone was reached for Australia’s first mega-science project, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), with the announcement of the SKA Observatory. We spoke with Mr Antony Schinckel who leads the CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science SKA Program, about the launch, and how the project will deliver and inspire science not just now, but for decades to come.  

20-second exposure showing Milky Way above the SKA-Low antennas. Credit: Michael Goh/ICRAR/Curtin.

One major science project will soon re-shape the future of how young Australians start to perceive astronomy, and our role on the global stage, with the development of what will become the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). It will be the first time that our country will host a mega-science project in our backyard. 

So grand, ambitious and awe-inspiring is the SKA, it will change the way that everyday Australians consider astronomy and space science from something that other countries do with their big space agencies, to something that we do here in our own country, leading from a global perspective. 

Earlier this month the world’s second intergovernmental organisation (IGO) dedicated to astronomy was launched at the Jodrell Bank UNESCO World Heritage site in the United Kingdom, ushering in the new Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) - and heralding an ambitiously exciting future for all fields across astrophysics. 

It marked a significant moment in the project’s timeline - an official “GO!” for the mammoth international project, which aims to be operational and gazing upon the cosmos in unrivalled resolution, in about a decade from now. 

This wasn’t just a regular meeting or snap announcement - last week’s decision has taken over three decades of dedication, conversation, diplomacy and funding to arrive at, carrying enormous responsibility and commitment from nations that form part of the special council of the SKAO. 

As announced by the SKAO earlier this month, the first SKAO Council meeting follows the signature of the SKA treaty, formally known as the Convention establishing the SKA Observatory, on 12 March 2019 in Rome, and its subsequent ratification by Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom and entry into force on 15 January 2021, marking the official birth date of the observatory.

The Council itself is composed of representatives from the Observatory’s Member States, as well as Observer countries aspiring to join SKAO. Among these are countries that took part in the design phase of the SKA such as Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, and whose future accession to SKAO is expected in the coming weeks and months, once their national processes have been completed. Representatives of national bodies in Japan and South Korea complement the select list of Observers in the SKAO Council.

An aerial view of the construction of the Aperture Array Verification System (AAVS) station used in SKA-low. Credit: ICRAR/Curtin.

On Australia’s behalf, the Government is committed to supporting the project with both establishment of the radio-quiet zone out where the telescope will be built, and ongoing funding commitments made in 2015, including the $294 million dedicated to the project over the course of the decade. 

As one of the SKAO founding members, Australia has played a vital role in progressing the project that will soon become one of the country's most important pieces of scientific infrastructure. One that will continue to provide benefit to both the astronomical and wider, general community for many decades to come, including inspiring the future STEM participants across the country. 

“I think for many people the transition last week might not have seemed like a really big milestone, but it really is, it’s huge,” said Antony (Ant) Schinckel, Head of the CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science SKA Programme, who also leads the Australian infrastructure design and development, rolling out the long-term construction and implementation of Australia’s portion of the mega-telescope. 

“It’s the beginning of the legal entity that the money will flow to from the member countries and the start of construction, conceptually, so it's a really big event in the history of the project,” 

“This is Australia’s first-ever hosting of a mega-science project, a really big international project - we’ve got many great science facilities, run by both the CSIRO and universities and institutes around the country, but this is the first international mega-science project. It is very important to keep your eye on the long game here, it’s not just the telescope we are building today, it is what will happen in 10, 20, 30 years from now,” said Mr Schinckel.

Prior to working on SKA, Mr Schinckel worked on the design, construction and commissioning of CSIRO’s Australia Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope, paving the way for future SKA infrastructure through trial and technological advancement, whilst achieving remarkable results along the way - like the recent mapping of the entire southern sky in record time. 

Nighttime composite (artist impression) of both the SKA-Mid (South Africa, left) and SKA-Low (Australia, right). Credit: SKAO, ICRAR, SARAO.

Building the world’s largest telescope is not an overnight process, nor a task that a single nation can take on its own.  Armies of scientists, engineers, researchers, and dreamers have had to conceive and materialise new technology, new computing capabilities, and new processes to achieve what the SKA will, once its great eye opens to peer into the furthest and deepest parts of our Universe. Its first light (a term astronomers use when a telescope captures its first images) will be unlike anything ever observed before. 

To some degree, the technology doesn’t even exist - allowing some of our leading scientists and engineers to really push the boundaries of innovation, computing and science. This, of course, feeds back into our society as a benefit.

“I think the spin-off to Australian Industry both on the highly technical side of the digital systems, and of course in the software and firmware area will be significantly and highly beneficial,” said Mr Schinckel considering how resolving these challenges will bring about new benefits to the wider community. And it's not just one organisation who is approaching these opportunities through dedicated resources that are redefining technology in an exemplary manner.

This has involved a number of Australian stakeholders, including both the Australian and Western Australian Government, Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), the Pawsey Supercomputer Centre, Swinburne University of Technology, and the Wajarri Yamaji community.

What is the SKA?

Two radio telescopes will make up the SKA - one that is located in South Africa, whilst the other is located here in Australia. Both telescopes will work towards achieving shared and complementary science goals. 

On the Australian continent is SKA-Low. Here, spread across the red-Earth plains of outback Western Australia will be 131,072 dipole antennas (the ones that look like Christmas trees) who will observe the sky in the lower frequency range of 50 MHz - 350 MHz. To make up the array at SKA-Low, 256 of the Christmas tree-shaped antennas are grouped together in what is known as a ‘station’, with a total of 512 stations covering a rough triangle with sides of 65 km. Most of these stations will be located in a central region of the telescope, but the remainder will span outwards in three spiral arm structures. 

Across the Indian Ocean and located at the South Africa Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), is the SKA-mid array - which will contain 197 more traditional-looking radio antenna dishes stretching across a maximum baseline of 150 km. These antennas scan the skies at the higher 350 MHz to 15 GHz frequency range.

Fast facts about both the SKA-Low (Australia) and SKA-Mid (South Africa). SKA-low will cover the lower end of the frequency range, whilst SKA-mid will go higher. Credit: SKAO telescope brochure (read full brochure with link at bottom of this article).

The ambitions of the SKA project are reflected in some of the science goals the team has already set out for itself, including cosmological studies that will reveal why the Universe’s expansion is accelerating, the testing of Einstein’s theory of gravity, and providing further context to the question that we all consider at one point in our lives - are we all alone in the Universe?

And while the SKA is grand in every aspect, drawing on building knowledge against some of the biggest science questions humanity has, Mr Schinckel also wants young people who are starting up in the astronomy community to jump in and start considering a future with the project.

“Don’t be intimidated. People will immediately think ‘I can’t do that, it’s too hard, I’m not smart enough’ - and that is absolutely not true,” he said, as advice to young people who are only just hearing about the SKA project and wanting to work in the field of astronomy and space science.

“If you want to be doing something like this, if you want to be an engineer, a technician, a research scientist, or a computer programmer, you can do it. It’s really about application and belief in yourself to do it.”

As a mega-science project, the SKA will also have a number of roles and responsibilities (both now and into the future) for people who also fall outside the astronomy industry, with their roles specialising in ensuring the telescope churns and produces data in a successful manner. 

“There’s a huge range of tasks that a project like this covers. We don’t just need astronomers, we need people working all sorts of different fields - we need technicians, electricians, electronics gurus, and software programmers. At the site, we need cooks, cleaners, and everything for the telescope - young people can take a very diverse role and still be involved in a pretty exciting project.”

“But the main thing is, don’t think you can’t do it - it’s one of things I see so often is young people who think certain tasks and jobs look too hard, but it really is all about application and wanting to do it.”

Where are we now?

An SKAO staff member on-site at the MRO during the installation of the SKA-low antennas. Credit: ICRAR/Curtin.

To build something of this scale comes on the back of years of work, ranging from conversations through to implementation. And news of the establishment of the SKAO is already travelling out into scientific communities, applicable industries and the education network across the country. 

“We’ve been briefing the industry over the last few years, and they are aware of this [SKA Project] coming, as it has been coming for such a long time, but this is the big transition year,” said Mr Schinckel.

Whilst it might seem like the obvious next step is to get shovels into the ground, and the construction going, there are still a few more administrative tasks that need to commence, ensuring that Australian companies have the opportunity to participate in this massive project. This includes establishing the mechanics of the procurement opportunities, which will lead to the construction of this grand piece of infrastructure. 

“The volume of procurement and contracting for the SKA Observatory to get out the door, is, of course, enormous, and we’ll start to see that process around the middle of this year, and right through the second half and into early 2022,” said Mr Schinckel.

“The actual work on-site, likely won’t significantly happen until about the end of 2022, as there is still a lot of preparatory work to do getting the contracts out, and of course, building a lot of the assets off-site and then taking them in there,” 

From the public’s perspective, the SKA project will ramp up, slow at first then gaining momentum and speed as construction commences. There’s also a lot of smaller aspects to the SKA project which are currently working with industry to progress the technology that will eventually be utilised by the SKA. 

One Australian space industry company is working with astronomers to detect the reflected FM radio waves of passing satellites, outlining some real-world applications of using such a big array for space situational awareness. 

In another example, cloud computing services, software applications and algorithm development are being pushed to their limits in a new partnership between astronomers and  Amazon Web Services that will eventually lead to a refined method of processing the 1 terabyte per second of data the SKA is expected to produce when fully operational.

What's Next for the SKA Project?

An MRO Goanna walks along in front of the SKA-low antennas. Credit: ICRAR/Curtin.

Eventually, the onsite construction will commence for SKA-Low, at CSIRO’s MRO  in the Western Australian outback.  “One of the big parts is the contracting roll out, so the infrastructure contracts for building the roads, the tracks, the very specialised RFI shielded buildings. Then we’ve got to expand accommodation facilities, and then we’ve got to start the technical parts of the telescope,” said Mr Schinckel in relation to some of the next steps for the SKA telescope.

There’s also the coordination aspect of this project with so many stakeholders which are contributing to the SKA, often with multiple components being developed across the world and brought together on location.  

“There’s 14 countries involved. Australia doesn’t get to build all of it - we as a country want to be constructing various parts of it, but there’s been a lot of discussions to reach final agreement about which countries are building and supplying the other parts”

“And that level of collaboration between people in different countries and different time zones, particularly when you are doing technical design work, is quite complex, and rather difficult - but it’s an excellent extra parameter to be working in - and the spin-offs for all the individual countries will be very good. The growth potential in [partner] countries is very big as well”  

For Mr Schinckel, this is just where the fun begins, signalling that even though the recent announcement means that construction will likely commence next year and take several years - along the way the learnings about the “unknown unknowns” will add a lot of value, and knowledge to the different fields of astronomy, science and engineering.

“One of the really fun aspects of new telescopes is that about 70% of the science that comes out of them is totally unexpected, it's not at all what you were expecting,” he says.  

“30% is the science you use to justify building the telescope, but the exciting thing is that 70% of what comes out is completely new, its science that we’ve never thought of before and that’s one of the exciting things to look forward to here”

“Additionally, the long-haul impact this project will have - it will attract other science projects, other technology development, other research opportunities to Australia, so the economic benefits from the Australian and West Australian Governments putting money into projects like SKA are just enormous, there will be a lot of long term benefit.”

In all cases, the SKA telescope is going to change everything, and the fact that it happens to be in our own backyard means that we too, as a nation, will change with it.

Take the virtual tour around the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. 


We acknowledge the Wajarri Yamatji as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site.

Read the full SKAO prospectus here