By becoming a member of the SKA Observatory (SKAO), the largest and most ambitious radio astronomy collaboration in the world, Switzerland intends to foster Swiss research and industry while contributing to an international initiative that promises to revolutionize our understanding of the Universe.
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope arrays promise to revolutionize our understanding of the Universe and the laws of fundamental physics by studying light from celestial objects in the radio frequency range, and Switzerland has just committed 33.6 million CHF to the project for the period 2021-2030 towards construction and early operation of the telescope.
The accession of Switzerland to SKAO was an important milestone for Switzerland, as well as for SKAO, as Switzerland was the first non-signatory country of the Convention establishing SKAO to become member. Great challenges lie ahead of us, but I trust we will be able to overcome them.
Radio astronomy is now a well-established field of astronomy and has led to the discovery of new celestial objects, and more generally new classes of objects such as quasars, masers, pulsars, radio galaxies and the more recent fast radio bursts. The cosmic background radiation, regarded as evidence for the Big Bang theory, was also discovered through radio astronomy observations in 1965.
Initially, hundreds of dishes will be built in South Africa as part of the SKA-mid telescope, while over 130 thousand low-frequency antennas will be erected in Australia as part of the SKA-low telescope. Ultimately these radio arrays will be expanded to reach over one square kilometre of collecting area for detecting radio frequencies, increasing their sensitivity and resolution even further. Construction activities of the SKA telescopes started in mid-2021.
Expected to be fully operational towards the end of this decade, the powerful radio observatory will collect tremendous amounts of data that will need to be synchronized, automated, stored, processed and distributed to partners around the globe. Switzerland intends to leverage industry and technical partners, providing expertise in the development of advanced receivers for dish antennas, but also in precision timing, automation, signal processing and Big Data.
Switzerland has a long and successful record of space research and activities – plus two Nobel laureates in astrophysics. Combine this with our strategic focus on efficient big data processing and you have the perfect recipe for a powerful contribution of our country to the upcoming findings of the SKA radio-telescope.
In exchange, Switzerland will gain access to the vast amounts of data (~650 PBytes/year) generated by the SKA telescopes for fundamental research as outlined in a 2020 whitepaper by the Swiss astrophysics community, including areas such as cosmology, dark energy and astrobiology to name a few. The participation of Switzerland in the construction and operation of SKAO also generates plentiful opportunities for Swiss high-tech companies to position themselves within this unique market. Based on initial projections, the Swiss Industry Liaison Office estimates that at least one fifth of the Swiss contribution will be allocated by SKAO to Swiss entities.
Switzerland also plans to further contribute to the development of the European SKA Regional Centre (SRC) for transforming these data outputs into science products leading to an improved understanding of the Universe and of astrophysical processes. The Swiss branch of the SRC will also be the data interface for Swiss scientists.
Swiss involvement is organized through a strong consortium of research institutions*, called SKACH, in part funded by the State Secretariat for Education, Research, and Innovation (SERI). In the last five years, EPFL spearheaded Swiss involvement at the national level, and going forward this consortium will be led by a board that includes EPFL and a strong contingent of eight other institutions.
At the House of Switzerland in Davos, key players involved in getting Switzerland on board of the SKAO came together to discuss Switzerland’s participation in the Observatory, and what it means for Switzerland and for SKAO. The event was broadcast remotely.
SKAO signs up software contributor in first Swiss contract
The SKAO signed its first contract with a Swiss contributor at the end of April to help build the software for its transformational telescopes. The contract with Cosylab forms part of the Observatory’s commitment to ensure that industries in the member countries benefit directly from their contribution to SKAO.
Cosylab, short for Control System Laboratory, is a leading provider of control systems for some of the world’s most complex projects, including the nuclear fusion project ITER in France and the particle accelerator CERN in Switzerland. Cosylab’s employees join other developers working on the SKA telescopes’ Observation Monitor and Controls software.
“Our Cosylab colleagues are very innovative and fit well with the SKAO’s collaborative and inclusive way of working,” said the Observatory’s Head of Computing and Software, Nick Rees. “This signing marks the final one in a series of 23 contracts valued at just under €100million to develop our telescopes’ software. It has been a long and complex process, so we are delighted with Cosylab capping off our effort.”
The first real-world test for the SKA software will be the deployment of 4 telescope dishes and 6 low-frequency antenna stations, scheduled for late 2023. The software should then be able to demonstrate some functionality for the control of the telescope, including basic interferometry.
By the time construction concludes at the end of the decade, the software in each telescope will need to transport and process an average of 8 terabits per second of data before distributing it to science users worldwide.
The political process of joining an intergovernmental organisation such as the SKAO can be intricate and drawn out. The fact that Switzerland managed to complete all steps within a year of SKAO’s creation is a demonstration of the Swiss’s dedication to our ambitious scientific project. We are delighted to welcome Switzerland as the Observatory’s first non-founding member and eighth member country overall.
It is only fitting that the country where physicist Albert Einstein went to university and developed his general theory of relativity should become a member of the SKA Observatory. Shortly, we will have built one of the most sophisticated instruments yet to test whether his theory still holds – more than a century after Einstein published it. We cannot complete this task -and many others as part of the wide-ranging science case of the Observatory- without the expertise and commitment of our Swiss colleagues, who have made significant contributions to the telescopes’ design and the SKAO science goals. Welcome on board, Switzerland!
The Swiss industry, because of its culture of innovation, reliability, quality, is compatible with the demand of international research organisations like the SKA Observatory. We have identified on the SKA programme 4 procurement domains where we can consolidate the return of contracts to Switzerland.
I am especially excited for young scientists, because participating in the SKA Observatory is an opportunity to gain access to exclusive SKA data and to work in a truly international collaboration.
I am very proud that Switzerland has decided to join the SKAO as a full member. EPFL’s long-standing commitment to revitalize and coordinate Swiss interests in radio astronomy and the SKAO telescope is thus bearing fruit.
The SKAO, formally known as the SKA Observatory, is an intergovernmental organisation composed of Member States from five continents and headquartered in the UK. Its mission is to build and operate cutting-edge radio telescopes to transform our understanding of the Universe, and deliver benefits to society through global collaboration and innovation.
Its two telescopes, each composed of hundreds of dishes and thousands of antennas, will be constructed in South Africa and Australia and be the two most advanced radio telescopes on Earth. A later expansion is envisioned in both countries and other African partner countries.
Together with other state-of-the-art research facilities, the SKAO’s telescopes will explore the unknown frontiers of science and deepen our understanding of key processes, including the formation and evolution of galaxies, fundamental physics in extreme environments and the origins of life. Through the development of innovative technologies and its contribution to addressing societal challenges, the SKAO will play its part to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and deliver significant benefits across its membership and beyond.
The SKAO recognises and acknowledges the Indigenous peoples and cultures that have traditionally lived on the lands on which the SKAO facilities are located.
* The SKA Switzerland (SKACH) Consortium includes: Centro Svizzero di Calcolo Scientifico (CSCS, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ), Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz (FHNW), Haute École spécialisée de Suisse Occidentale (HES-SO), Universität Basel (UniBAS), Université de Genève (UniGE), Universität Zürich (UZH), Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften (ZHAW).