SKA telescope gets $387m shot in the arm

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has committed a further $387 million to the massive Square Kilometre Array radio telescope in Western Australia’s Murchison region, including $64 million that will underwrite a new supercomputing centre.

The square kilometre array project, which was conceived in the 1990s and designed in the late 2010s, includes giant and coordinated radio telescope arrays built in both Western Australia and South Africa.

Mr Morrison says the latest investment, although part of Australia’s existing commitments to the project, “highlights that science and advanced manufacturing are at the heart of my government’s National Economic Recovery Plan from the COVID recession.”

More than 350 jobs would be created during the construction phase of the SKA, with a further 230 ongoing positions over the 50 year life of the project.

Square Kilometre Array
Blue Sky: An artist’s impression of the Square Kilometre Array

“The ambitions we have for manufacturing in this country is built on the vision we have for science and technology,” the Prime Minister said during a visit to the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth.

“Our investment in the construction and operations of the SKA will build our manufacturing capacity within the highly-skilled technology sector and enable major scientific breakthroughs to be made right here in Western Australia,” Mr Morrison said.

“The SKA will help our scientists make more discoveries than we can imagine today. Whether it’s better understanding the origin and future of our stars and galaxies to how gravity works across the universe.”

The SKA is an international collaboration between 16 member countries, including: Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Australia will build and host the low-frequency part of the telescope (SKA-Low), which includes up to 131,072 individual SKA antennas, shaped like Christmas trees. The mid-frequency element (SKA-Mid) will be hosted by South Africa.

Global construction activities are expected to begin in the second half of this year, with work expected to begin in WA from early next year.

The newly-appointed Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Christian Porter said onshore processing of data – which is expected to be at the Pawsey Centre – presented opportunities for Australian organisations and scientists to build capability in managing vast data sets and extracting meaning.

The construction phase of the SKA was an opportunity for local SMEs, he said.

“Several Australian companies have already developed and manufactured components for the telescope prototypes and precursor telescopes,” Mr Porter said.

“This new investment will build on our $1.5 billion Modern Manufacturing Strategy and be a significant boost to the space sector, which is one of the strategy’s six priority sectors. It will strengthen our efforts to develop cutting edge industries with a global reach.

“As well as creating hundreds of local jobs, our economic modelling indicates the project will attract an estimated $1.8 billion in foreign income flows into Australia as a result of the SKA’s first 30 years of operations,” Mr Porter said.

“Our funding includes the provision of fibre-optic connectivity to communities near the SKA, which is at CSIRO’s Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory.

“This high-speed connection will support local economic development while reducing radio interference around the telescope.”

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