6 mins read 24 May 2021

Dr Sarah Pearce to Lead Australia's Mega-Science SKA Project

The Square Kilometre Array project has appointed Dr Sarah Pearce as its Telescope Director in Australia – SKA is Australia’s first mega-science project that will revolutionise our understanding of the Universe through radio astronomy.

Credit: CSIRO.

Australia’s first mega-science project, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is gaining a familiar face from the space community to lead its Australian operations of the largest radio telescope in the world, which will be located in central Western Australia.

Last week, Square Kilometre Array  Observatory (SKAO) announced that Dr Sarah Pearce will be the Director of the Australian portion of the project, overseeing procedures, staff, and all other elements that come with running the telescope which features many different components spread across a larger region.

“This is a unique and exciting opportunity to establish the SKA Observatory team in Australia and help deliver the world’s next-generation radio telescopes. I’m honoured to continue my work on the SKA Project in this new role, and I look forward to building a long-lasting partnership between the SKA Observatory and CSIRO,” said Dr Pearce.

During the construction phase, which is expected to last until the end of the decade, Dr Pearce will work closely with site construction units, directing operations as the telescope components are designed, tested, and developed.

“We’ll start to build SKA-Low towards the end of this year or early next year. This is the culmination of decades of work by the international astronomy community.” 

“Construction of the whole telescope will take around seven years, but SKA Low will be the largest telescope of its kind well before it’s finished. So we’ll start to see new, exciting science over that time,” she said.

Currently, Dr Pearce holds the position of Acting Chief Scientist with Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO. Having worked there for over 10 years, for most of this time she held the position of Deputy Director of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science (CASS) division.

It was during this role in which Dr Pearce led CSIRO’s engagement (as a major partner) in the international SKA project, acting as Australia’s science representative in the negotiations for the large-scale project. Additionally, Dr Pearce has established CSIRO’s Space research programme, as well as the cross-organisational Centre for Earth Observation, whilst playing an active role in the Australian space industry.

“We’re putting Australia on the map as a global leader in science and technology, so we expect the SKA will increase Australia’s appeal to highly qualified scientist and engineers, as well as encouraging more Australians into STEM subjects. But the SKA will also need innovation to deliver its cutting-edge requirements, such as managing some of the world’s largest data sets, which will have spinoffs for Australian industry.”

Additionally, Dr Lindsay Magnus, who is currently head of the operations at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) has also been appointed as the Director of the SKA-Mid telescope, located in South Africa. Both appointees have been working closely with the SKA project for several years now and are well-positioned to further continue the progress made in each respective country.

Each role, the most senior for the project in each country, will report through to the SKAO Operations, with global headquarters are located in Manchester (United Kingdom). SKA Director of Operations, Lewis Ball, said he was thrilled to be working with both Dr Pearce and Dr Magnus, who would bring both lots of talent and knowledge to each respective country’s operations.

Australia’s Mega-Science Project

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.

The SKA will consist of two telescopes, one located in Western Australia, and the other located in South Africa – both working in complement of each other and towards achieving shared science goals, like 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?

On the Australian side, SKA-Low is being developed in central Western Australia, consisting of over 131,000 dipole antennas (that resemble a Christmas tree), which will scan the skies between 50 MHz – 350 MHz. The antennas are themselves grouped in bunches of 256 to create ‘stations’ with 512 stations spread around the outback region, in the Australian Government designated ‘radio-quiet zone’, where minimal radio interference from human activities is permitted.

On the other side of the Indian ocean is the SKA-Mid, which features the more familiar-looking dish antennas with the difference that the South African telescope will scan the skies between 350 MHz – 15.4 GHz.

“It’s the chance to help build this first mega-science project for Australia. We’ve been leaders in radio astronomy for decades, but this is the first time we’ve been chosen to co-host a large science project on behalf of the international community,” said Dr Pearce. 

“It’s a real responsibility, but also a great opportunity. And I’m also very much looking forward to working with our international partners – especially South Africa, who will host the SKA-Mid telescope.”

“SKA is an incredibly exciting step for Australian astronomers. It’s going to address some of the most difficult questions in astronomy, such as trying to detect the Epoch of Reionisation – when the first stars and galaxies started to form. But it will also find and answer fresh questions, that we don’t even know yet, which will engage a whole new generation of astronomers.”

In addition to these appointments, the SKA project, especially here in Australia, has started taking the preliminary steps prior to getting shovels into the ground and construction started, which include the establishment of procurement mechanics, contractual obligations, and building assets like antennas off-site (which require testing and then delivery).

The telescope is expected to be fully operational towards the end of the decade, but as the project ramps up, commissioning science projects should start to deliver new results that could potentially reshape our understanding of the Universe.

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.