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Broader impact of the SKA Observatory


The SKA ObservatoryThe SKA Observatory (SKAO) has an unprecedented opportunity to position itself as the global research infrastructure with the broadest overall impact of any currently in planning or implementation. Benefitting society is at the core of its mission, with Member States committing to embrace “the potential for scientific discovery to contribute to advances in technology and innovation and to deliver a broader benefit for industry and society” in the Observatory’s founding treaty.

“Research infrastructures are a magnet for talent and knowledge-intensive companies. By collaborating with science on new technologies, industry can expand or improve its existing expertise to introduce new technologies to existing markets or enter new markets. Investing in RIs therefore also means investing in new key enabling technologies for future solutions to societal challenges and new prosperity.”

– Ingrid van Engelshoven, The Netherlands Minister of Education, Culture and Science (2019)

Building on investments made by project partners over many years, and through exploitation of policies and procedures under development now, the SKA Project is expected to deliver significant benefits for Member States’ research landscape, economy, society, sustainability and culture. These impacts span industry return and innovation, human capital development, inspiration and education, geopolitics and diplomacy, and are detailed in the SKAO’s Construction Proposal.

The Value of large research infrastructures Research infrastructures (RIs) form an increasingly large component of national research investments. Although these facilities are primarily designed to support research needs, their impact goes beyond the production of scientific results and knowledge. Their conception, construction and operation are almost always associated with unique technological developments, data management systems and highly skilled staff. Large-scale facilities offer rare or unique research tools, which permit new research questions to be posed and increase the likelihood of breakthroughs in understanding, and such insight may have profound social benefits.

Similarly, large-scale RIs provide access to unique equipment, data or services for a diverse user base, including businesses working with academic groups or carrying out their own proprietary research and innovation, and can provide a focal point for clusters of scientists and engineers, along with highvalue, high-technology service companies.

Contribution to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

Through its broader impacts, the SKAO is helping to address global challenges by contributing to some of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all by 2030. In particular, the SKA Project is contributing to:

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

  • 3 Good Health and Well-being
  • 4 Quality Education
  • 5 Gender Equality
  • 6 Clean Water and Sanitation
  • 7 Affordable and Clean Energy
  • 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • 9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • 10 Reduced Inequalities
  • 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • 12 Responsible Consumption and Production
  • 13 Climate Action
  • 15 Life on Land
  • 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
  • 17 Partnerships for the Goals

Sustainability > Dark & Quiet Skies

The SKA sites are located within areas of extremely low population density with an almost pristine radio frequency environment. Protection from terrestrial sources of interference that could disturb the astronomical observations is provided by the site location together with strict laws to regulate the use and installation of equipment in radio-quiet zones around the radio telescopes.

Streaks left by Starlink satellitesHowever, satellites and aircrafts will still pass over the sites, potentially producing interference in the SKA frequency bands. This is especially true because the SKA aims to observe the sky over a much wider frequency range than allocated by the international radio regulations to the radio astronomy service. The recent and forthcoming rise of satellite mega-constellations poses additional challenges and SKAO will keep undertaking spectrum management to coordinate and negotiate special agreements with industry to ensure satisfactory solutions are sought to mitigate the impact of these constellations. The SKA community is establishing contacts with the national administrations of the stakeholder countries to seek their support in discussions with the major public and private telecommunications agencies.

SKAO is working closely with other organisations such as the International Astronomical Union, European Southern Observatory, Royal Astronomical Society, as well as industry and international bodies like the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations’ Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUS) and UNESCO.

By interacting directly with industry, government and international bodies, the SKA has the potential to play a key role in the protection of the night sky and the development of a sustainable way for industry and radio astronomy observatories to work together.

Read out interview with Federico on the potential impact of satellite mega-constellations on radio astronomy.

International relations > membership of the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union (ITU)

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies – ICTs. Founded in 1865 to facilitate international connectivity in communications networks, they allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide.

One of the roles of the ITU is to ensure that different radio services can operate seamlessly and interference free. By its nature, the radio astronomy service (RAS) is a so-called “passive service”, so it cannot cause interference to other users of the radio spectrum. The ever increasing needs of active services (terrestrial and air/space-borne radio transmitters) for spectrum creates more pressure on the (already narrow) radio astronomy bands. Advocating for the protection of radio astronomy operations at ITU is of utmost importance to keep the protected bands free from interference.

The SKA Observatory has been a sector member of the ITU-R (Radiocommunications sector) since 2014 to protect radio astronomy operations from radio interference and to lobby on behalf of radio astronomy together with existing regional community bodies with other sector members such as the European Space Agency, World Meteorological Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, and the EMEA Satellite Operator’s Association.

Why are we members of the ITU?

Radio Astronomy plays a fundamental role in enhancing our understanding of the origins of our cosmos and the environment that we live in.

The representation of the SKAO at the ITU
With the increased use of terrestrial and space communications it is of critical importance that the SKA Observatory, together with many other bodies and lobbyists who serve to protect radio astronomy, continue our collaborative engagements with other members of the ITU. In this effort we work to ensure that we keep frequency bands used in Radio Astronomy and Space Sciences free from interference allowing us to conduct our research. Recognising the impact that space activities can have on radio astronomy, the SKAO engages with space industry on systems that may hinder the operations of our research infrastructure impacting on our sciences.

“Through our membership of international bodies, such as the ITU-R, we can work together with other stakeholders to find compromises that consider the protection of radio astronomy while addressing their radio spectrum needs. Through dialogue and discussion we find solutions that work for everyone” says Federico Di Vruno, SKAO Spectrum Manager.


Figure 1: United States Frequency Allocation Chart, Radio Astronomy-protected frequencies represented by narrow yellow bands.To detect the extremely faint radio signals and to take advantage of modern systems, radio telescopes need to go beyond the bands historically allocated to radio astronomy, requiring engagement at ITU level.

Economy > Innovation & technological spin-offs > High-Performance 4G antenna based on SKA antenna design

SIRIO-developped 4G LTE antenna based on the SKALA 4.1-AL antenna created for the SKA-Low telescope

SIRIO-developped 4G LTE antenna based on the SKALA 4.1-AL antenna created for the SKA-Low telescope. Credit: Sirio Antenne SRL

The challenge of delivering the SKA Project has enabled strong cooperation in Italy between industry and radio astronomical-technological research centres and driven the development of a new commercial high-performing antenna working at 4G-LTE frequencies (698-2700 MHz)

The antenna was developed by Italian company Sirio Antenne, a contractor to the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in the SKA project, taking inspiration from their work, in collaboration with UK, Dutch and Australian teams, on the SKALA 4.1-AL antenna created for the SKA-Low telescope and installed in the Australian outback.

Although the commercial and SKA antennas have very different purposes, the technical and electrical design of the commercial antenna has several common elements with SKALA 4.1-AL. The commercial antenna has generated good feedback from the European market and won a tender in France for the electrical network supplier (for ENEDIS/EDF FRANCE) for remote power consumption reading.

Sirio Antenne are also working to develop a similar antenna for 5G (698MHz – 6GHz).

“Combining the academic world with the industrial one, the SKA turned out to be extremely interesting and exciting both professionally and from a human experience,” says Stefania Grazioli, Director of Sirio Antenne. “The cooperation enriched both sides leading to goals otherwise difficult to achieve.

Economy > Transfer of knowledge and skills > Spinoff company born from SKA antenna design work sees applications beyond astronomy

A SKALA2 antenna at the South Pole.

A SKALA2 antenna has made it all the way to the South Pole. Credit: Dr Frank Schröder, KIT, and Delaware University.

A team from the University of Cambridge, who led the Antenna and LNA working group as part of the Dutch-led Low Frequency Aperture Array (LFAA) consortium, have formed a spinoff company, Cambridge ElectroMagnetic Technology Ltd (CEMTL), providing consultancy services building on the team’s experience in antenna design, low noise electronics, phased array systems and electromagnetic modelling.

The company also supplies wideband antennas and low noise amplifiers, and has provided SKALA2 antennas for the PeV-Radio
project at the South Pole, funded through a European Research Council grant and led by Dr. Frank Schröder at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

The antennas are deployed at the IceTop cosmic-ray surface array of the international IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a revolutionary detector encompassing one cubic kilometre of ice, located near the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The SKALA2 antennas will further increase the sky coverage of IceTop, to include the centre of our own galaxy. They will also enable a higher accuracy for the detection of atmospheric particle cascades, helping to shed light on their currently unknown origin.

“We are thrilled to see SKALA antennas used in applications beyond astronomy”, says Dr Eloy de Lera Acedo, co-founder and director,
CEMTL. “After leading the antenna design team in the consortium, we are excited to embark on this new adventure with Cambridge Electromagnetic Technology Ltd. and are now focused on expanding the impact of the SKALA technology in other markets.”

Society > Tertiary education and training > Summer schools in China

The 4th Chinese SKA Science Workshop was held at Shanghai Astronomical Observatory. Credit: SHAO

The 4th Chinese SKA Science Workshop was held at Shanghai Astronomical Observatory. Credit: SHAO

Building the SKA will produce a cohort of highly accomplished engineers and scientists, who will be capable of applying their talents to a broad range of areas of great benefit to the member state economies and societies.

The SKA member countries have education embedded in their development from the earliest stages, inspiring young people in time for them to become users of the telescope or engineers and scientists working with the SKA, and potentially encouraging more people to develop the STEM skills needed to maintain and grow the knowledge-based economy.

SKA summer schools have been organised in several member states to equip students with skills in key areas.

In China, such week-long training sessions have been running since 2013 with the support of the Ministry of Science and Technology, the SKA China Office, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, attracting about 100 students and junior researchers each time.

In 2019 the school saw 70 BSc-level students from across China practise data processing techniques on the Chinese prototype SKA Regional Centre using data from SKA precursor and pathfinder telescopes, learning new techniques and providing valuable feedback to the data centre’s design in the process.

“The SKA requires continuous contributions from the community. Knowledge propagation and education of young scientists is a vital part of that.” says Dr Tao An from Shanghai Astronomical Observatory.

Economy > Building Capability in Industry > Public-Private collaboration on AI in China

The scale of the SKA Project, and the inherent requirement to ‘productise’ and mass-produce many of its components, requires new and innovative levels of industry participation far exceeding that required in other astronomy projects.

The SKA will contract industry suppliers to manufacture and assemble components, systems and sub-systems. This commissioned work will allow industry to develop cutting-edge knowledge and expertise, and offer opportunities for R&D. This will generate economic benefits for member countries in the form of strengthened industrial capacity.

The construction of the SKA requires collaboration between researchers and manufacturers to produce new or improved instruments for specific products, which subsequently provide the platform for wider sales or even new product lines. This is an area of considerable business potential. The building and installation work will entail the purchase of various high-value instruments and software, some of which will likely involve technological innovation or other advances.

In China, a collaboration between the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory and Huawei led to the development of new artificial intelligence approaches inspired by the challenges posed by the SKA. These approaches were then successfully tested on the Atlas 900 Huawei Cloud Ascend cluster service, processing over 200,000 radio galaxies in just 10.2 seconds as opposed to 169 days with an earlier system. The objective is to eventually apply machine learning solutions to seemingly routine tasks like identifying, classifying and cataloguing astronomical objects from SKA images to detect tens and hundreds of millions of astrophysical systems and use artificial intelligence to make sure that the classifications are unbiased.

Environment > Restoring ecosystems and managing resources

A Multidisciplinary Approach for Conservation and Resource Management at the South African SKA Site

In South Africa, the 130,000 hectares of land acquired for the SKA Project is a protected area which has been declared a new national park (Meerkat National Park), under management from SANParks. The Meerkat National Park allows for the creation of multi-disciplinary research platforms, enhancing heritage, archaeological, ecological, aquatic, flora and fauna conservation efforts and promoting resource management through the removal of alien invasive trees.

An invasion of Prosopis trees along a sandy riverbed, in the Northern Cape, South Africa. (Photo: F. Heystek, ARC-PHP).

An invasion of Prosopis trees along a sandy riverbed, in the Northern Cape, South Africa. (Photo: F. Heystek, ARC-PHP).

Prosopis, more commonly known as mesquite, is a genus of flowering plants native to the Americas, recognised as an alien invasive species in countries such as South Africa and Australia where it was first imported in the late 1800s to provide shade, fodder and timber. This species currently thrives in the dry arid climate prevalent in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, which remains one of the most drought-stricken provinces in the country. Prosopis has none of its natural enemies to limit reproduction, damage growing plants and keep population growth in check, which has negative impacts on biodiversity, ecological infrastructure, and human livelihoods. The plant has spread dramatically and grown into dense thickets which eliminate access to grazing and damage biodiversity, with the dense stands of Prosopis using up to six times more water than native plants. Their very long tap roots grow down into deep aquifers and use the precious groundwater that should be available to farmers and communities in the Northern Cape.

While various methods exist to remove it, chemical control agents have potential risks to contaminate and harm the native flora and fauna while mechanical methods cannot be used at or near the site due to Radio Frequency Interference concerns and their prohibitive costs.

Adopting a multidisciplinary approach, our partners the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) are working with the South African national park service SANParks and conservation experts to test the use of so-called biological control agents – insects that naturally target Prosopis but not other native plants – to remove the invasive species and restore the site to its original native flora, as part of joint conservation and ecological studies.

Beyond conservation efforts that will benefit South Africa as a whole, this has wider local benefits too. Studies have reported that removal of Prosopis could prevent the loss of 345 cubic metres of ground water per hectare annually, benefiting native plants and local communities in these arid areas. Over time, the insects are expected to spread to surrounding farmlands, where the firewood from the dying plant will be available for harvest.

The Australian SKA site also has a rich and diverse flora and fauna heritage. CSIRO, in conjunction with the Western Australian Government, has commenced collating and analysing decades of data on the flora in the region. This research will be used to provide advice to a multitude of agencies and working groups on the impact of grazing activities and climate change in the broader region, as well as with a specific view on assisting with future activities on land and water management.