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Canadian researchers will have access to next-generation radio astronomy observatory

A composite image of the future SKAO telescopes co-located in Australia and South Africa, blending what already exists on site with artists’ impressions (photo courtesy of SKAO)

Canada intends to proceed to full membership in the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO), a next-generation radio astronomy observatory bringing together nations from around the world to build and operate cutting-edge radio telescopes.

SKAO will operate two telescopes – one in Australia and one in South Africa – with headquarters in the United Kingdom. The facility will enable discoveries that will advance our understanding of the universe, the fundamental laws of physics and the prospects for life on other planets. Membership in the SKAO will allow Canada to develop strong scientific, technical and industrial capabilities and collaborations well into the future.

The decision to proceed with full membership, announced this week by Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François‑Philippe Champagne, is expected to provide Canadian astronomers with a six per cent use-share of the SKAO and support establishing a domestic regional centre. The centre will provide direct connections to data collected with the SKA telescopes and science support to enable ground-breaking discoveries.

Bryan Gaensler

“This is tremendously exciting news,” says Bryan Gaensler, director of the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics in the Faculty of Arts & Science and former science director of the Canadian Square Kilometre Array, a global radio observatory. “Canadian membership in the SKAO was one of the marquee priorities in the Canadian Astronomy Long Range Plan for 2020-2030. Membership will open new opportunities for University of Toronto leadership at an international scale.”

With full membership, U of T envisages significant involvement in a Canadian SKA Regional Centre as part of its recently established Data Sciences Institute.

“The SKAO is a key part of U of T’s Strategic Research Plan for 2018 - 2023 and an important institutional priority,” says Leah Cowen, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives. “It is a brilliant example of a high-impact, interdisciplinary research collaboration that is a reflection of our incredible research community.”

U of T also leads the $10-million Canadian Initiative for Radio Astronomy Data Analysis (CIRADA), a consortium of six Canadian universities, the National Research Council Canada and many international partners, whose goal is to establish Canadian capability for processing, archiving and sharing the enormous scientific data sets anticipated for the SKA.

“I’m thrilled to congratulate everyone at U of T for their work over many years in bringing us to this historic commitment,” says Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science. “It’s rewarding to know that the SKAO involves researchers from five Arts & Science units: the Dunlap Institute, the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, the Department of Physics and the Department of Statistical Sciences.”

The initial phase of the SKAO consists of 197 radio dishes located in South Africa and 131,072 antennas located in Australia. Construction on Phase 1 began in June 2021 and is expected to be completed by 2029.

Canada was one of six founding members of the initial SKAO consortium in 2000 and has maintained substantial involvement and engagement in the SKAO project to date. Canadian astronomers are playing leading roles in designing marquee SKA science programs – including tests of gravity, low-frequency cosmology, cosmic magnetism, dark energy and detecting transient systems. They have multi-wavelength expertise in galaxy evolution, multi-messenger astronomy and planetary system formation.

“Canada's commitment to the SKA secures our position at the forefront of astrophysics for the next few decades. Everybody at U of T that has the slightest interest in astronomy should prepare to get absolutely blown away by what the SKA is going to find,” says Roberto Abraham, chair of the David A. Dunlap department of astronomy and astrophysics. “And what makes it extra exciting is that U of T's leadership in the national consortium means that many of the most amazing discoveries will get made right here. What an exciting time to be an astronomer. To all the young people just getting into the subject: Hold on to your hats – it's going to be a wild ride!”

As well as working on many aspects of the SKA project itself, Canadian astronomers are developing a variety of new facilities and experiments aimed at testing the technology needed for the SKAO. Foremost amongst these is the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) of which U of T is a member. CHIME is a unique radio telescope that can detect fast radio bursts and is making a three-dimensional map of the dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of the universe. 

The NRC points out that for the SKAO, respecting Indigenous cultures and the local populations has been a key consideration from the start: “These core principles are fully aligned with the priorities of the Canadian astronomical community as expressed in the Canadian Astronomy Long Range Plan 2020-2030.”