Pretoria, South Africa, Friday 28 May 2021 – “France will join the SKA Observatory.” With these words, French President Emmanuel Macron announced France’s accession to the intergovernmental organisation while on a state visit to South Africa. Alongside Australia, South Africa is one of the host countries of the SKA Observatory (SKAO) radio telescopes, scientific instruments that promise to revolutionise our understanding of the Universe.
The announcement follows a unanimous decision by the SKAO Council, and makes France the first country to join the Observatory beyond its seven founding members: Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
In a joint communiqué following the visit, both President Macron and President Ramaphosa highlighted a number of aspects that the SKA project is poised to address, including building businesses and entrepreneurs and providing education and skills development for the future.
“I am absolutely delighted to welcome France as a new member of the SKA Observatory,” said Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond from the SKAO Global Headquarters near Manchester in the UK. “Our French colleagues have extensive expertise in radio astronomy, processing and technology and have been important partners of the project over recent years. During the pre-construction phase of the SKAO telescopes, French scientists and engineers have engaged very positively in key aspects of the design and SKAO-relevant science, and have built a strong case for investment from their government to support the ambitious goals of the SKAO. I expect France’s contribution in many areas of the project will be critical over the coming years as we tackle construction and operations.”
France has a 70-year history of radio astronomy, and its Nançay Radio-astronomy Station is home to antennas of an International LOFAR station and of the New Extension in Nançay Upgrading LOFAR (NenuFAR), both SKA pathfinder facilities.
France first became officially involved in the SKA Project in 2018 through the ‘Maison SKA-France’ consortium*, composed of universities, research organisations and industry and led by the French national research agency CNRS, Europe’s largest research organisation. The public-private collaboration played a key role in further positioning the SKA project within industrial, scientific, and political spheres in France and as a result, the project was placed on the French Roadmap for Research Infrastructures.
The French Ministry in charge of research, which will provide a substantial financial contribution to SKAO, has been very active in coordinating the preparation of France’s membership, in conjunction with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the SKAO, the SKAO Council, CNRS and the Maison SKA-France consortium.
In February, on the occasion of the founding of the SKA Observatory, the French government announced its intention to seek membership of the SKAO. Prof. Antoine Petit, Chairman and CEO of the CNRS said at the time: “I welcome France’s decision to become a member of SKAO and tackle a multitude of challenges: challenges both in astronomy and in the digital and technological worlds that will see academic and industrial researchers working together. The CNRS has strongly supported the idea of joining SKA, being motivated by these challenges, with the support of the partners of Maison SKA-France whom I thank and who, like all our researchers, are extremely enthusiastic about the scientific opportunities this brings.”
France took part in five of the 11 international engineering consortia designing the SKAO telescopes, including contributions for the SKA dishes, low-frequency antennas, receivers and signal processing.
French scientific interest in the SKA Project has greatly increased in recent years, with French participation in the international SKA preparatory science meetings growing significantly. The SKA France white paper, published in 2017, involved 178 authors from 40 institutes and six private companies.
Building on this work, it is expected that hundreds of researchers in France will directly benefit from the operation of the SKA telescopes in areas such as astrophysics, cosmology, and fundamental physics. Beyond astronomy, in the digital and technological sectors, there is great potential for important spinoffs and contributions to society, particularly in the areas of data processing and telecommunications.
“This great news reflects the strong momentum behind the SKA Observatory following its launch in February, and I warmly welcome France,” said Dr Catherine Cesarsky, SKAO Council Chair. “I know well the enthusiasm of French astronomers for this project and it is especially positive to see new members joining from beyond the group of countries involved in the SKAO Convention negotiations. This is a testament to how valuable SKAO’s contributions will be not only in science and engineering, but also its much wider impact on society through education and training, and innovations which will find their way to everyday life.”
* The consortium, known as ‘Maison SKA-France’, includes universities and research organisations CNRS, Observatoire de Paris, Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, University of Bordeaux, University of Orléans, INRIA and CEA/DRF as well as companies Air Liquide, ATOS-Bull, Callisto, CNIM, Kalray, FEDD and Thales.
About the SKAO
The SKAO, formally known as the SKA Observatory, is a global collaboration of Member States whose mission is to build and operate cutting-edge radio telescopes to transform our understanding of the Universe, and deliver benefits to society through global collaboration and innovation.
Headquartered in the UK, its two telescope arrays will be constructed in Australia and South Africa and be the two most advanced radio telescope networks on Earth. A later expansion is envisioned in both countries and other African partner countries. Together with other state-of-the-art research facilities, the SKAO’s telescopes will explore the unknown frontiers of science and deepen our understanding of key processes, including the formation and evolution of galaxies, fundamental physics in extreme environments and the origins of life. Through the development of innovative technologies and its contribution to addressing societal challenges, the SKAO will play its part to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and deliver significant benefits across its membership and beyond.
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