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Australia signs up to international SKA Observatory project

Australia has joined six other nations in signing an international treaty committing to the construction of the world’s largest science facility – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The convention, signed by Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom, will establish the SKA Observatory.

The SKA will consist of hundreds of radio dishes and thousands of antennas that will be spread out across thousands of kilometres in both Australia and southern Africa. It will aim to study gravitational waves, investigate the nature of fast-radio bursts, map hundreds of millions of galaxies as well as look for signs of life in the universe.

The Australian component of the SKA, SKA-Low, will be the world’s most sensitive low frequency radio telescope. Hosted at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, it will initially comprise over 130,000 antennas spread over 65 kilometres in remote Western Australia.

Federal minister for industry and science Karen Andrews said Australia is perfectly positioned to host the low frequency element of the telescope.

“The signing of the international treaty is an incredible achievement for all countries involved and reinforces Australia’s leading role in this global project,” Andrews said.

“Many great advancements in science can be attributed to exploration and pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Through this venture, our scientists will have access to data that will help unlock the mysteries of the universe.

“Australia will also be in a prime position to contribute to the design of new technologies, such as when CSIRO invented Wi-Fi as part of its work on radio astronomy.”

The SKA Observatory will make the final decisions on the SKA’s design and will coordinate the contracts needed to build and operate the telescope and associated infrastructure.

The Australian government is investing $293 million over 10 years towards building and initially operating the SKA.

Around $1 billion worth of contracts for the construction of the SKA are expected to start being awarded from late 2020 to companies and providers in the SKA’s member countries, providing a substantial return on investment for those countries.

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