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.
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.
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.