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SKAO signs hosting agreements with Australia and South Africa

A collage showing the SKAO Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond (centre), Australia’s David Fredericks, Secretary of the Department of Industry, Science Energy and Resources (left), and South Africa’s Dr Phil Mjwara, Director General of the Department of Science and Innovation (right) signing the Host Country Agreements during the fourth SKAO Council Meeting.

SKAO Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond (centre), Australia’s David Fredericks, Secretary of the Department of Industry, Science Energy and Resources (left), and South Africa’s Dr Phil Mjwara, Director General of the Department of Science and Innovation (right) signing the Host Country Agreements during the fourth SKAO Council Meeting.

SKAO Global Headquarters, Jodrell Bank, UK, 14 October 2021 – The SKA Observatory has signed agreements with the governments of Australia and South Africa to host its telescopes and associated infrastructures. These documents formalise arrangements for the construction and operation of the SKA telescopes in the two host countries.

The Host Country Agreements (HCAs) were signed by SKAO Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond, Australia’s David Fredericks, Secretary of the Department of Industry, Science Energy and Resources, and South Africa’s Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General of the Department of Science and Innovation, during the 4th meeting of the SKAO Council, the Observatory’s governing body. The signing event followed unanimous approval of the agreements by the seven Member States represented at the Council. 

“I am very pleased that we have finalised these agreements, which enable us to progress smoothly into the deployment of SKAO resources into Australia and South Africa and the construction phase of the SKA telescopes,” said Prof. Philip Diamond. “I wish to thank our colleagues in the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources in Australia, and the Department of Science and Innovation in South Africa, for their efforts throughout this process.”

“Negotiating these agreements has been a complex process involving many people over a number of years but to now have them signed is a really important step in the delivery of the project, and the collaborative attitude of all involved sets us up well for this next, critical stage,” said Dr Lewis Ball, SKAO’s Director of Operations, who led the last two years of negotiations.

The two documents set out the rights and responsibilities of each party regarding the sites, assets and infrastructure required to build and operate the SKA telescopes. Among other elements, this includes the respective governments’ obligation to provide radio frequency interference protection for the SKA telescope sites, and the SKAO’s obligation to ensure that its operations meet or exceed local and national health, safety and environmental laws. They also cover the Observatory’s use of infrastructure such as existing airstrips and fibre links. The Australian HCA recognises that an Indigenous Land Use Agreement with the Wajarri Yamatji, the traditional owners of Australia’s SKA site, is currently being established before construction at that site begins.

“Australia’s scientific and industrial capabilities, and wide open spaces position it ideally to host a project of this magnitude,” said Mr David Fredericks. “Technology spinoffs from the design of the telescopes will filter into everyday life and benefit society. The Australian Government is proud to be working closely with the Wajarri Yamatji to realise this once-in-a-generation project on their traditional lands.”

“South Africa welcomes the signing of the hosting agreement as this paves the way for the construction of the SKA telescope in the country,” said Dr Phil Mjwara. “This will bring enormous socio-economic benefits that will result in job-creation, industry development and skills development through our participation in this mega-infrastructure project.” 

The SKAO will have operations at four separate facilities in each country: a remotely-located telescope array, an Engineering Operations Centre to support the day-to-day maintenance and reliable physical operation of the telescope, a Science Operations Centre from which the scientific programme of observations using the telescope will be run, and a Science Processing Centre where a supercomputer will process the data acquired by the telescope to produce data products for use by astronomers from the Member countries and around the world. Both the Engineering Operations Centre and the Science Operations Centre will be provided by SKAO’s partner institutes, Australia’s national science agency CSIRO and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) in South Africa on behalf of their governments, and made available to the SKAO. The SKA Member countries plan to also operate a network of SKA Regional Centres that will provide the primary interface between the SKAO and the scientists who will use it.

The scope of both agreements covers the entire projected lifespan of the SKAO’s telescopes, right up to and including decommissioning and restoration of the two sites.

While the two documents share many commonalities, there are also differences driven by local legislative requirements. The Australian agreement highlights the obligations of both parties to the local Indigenous Wajarri Yamatji community. In South Africa, the HCA includes details on the incorporation of the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope into the SKA-Mid array, which will form an in-kind contribution by South Africa to the Observatory.

Earlier this year, the SKAO signed a similar agreement with the UK Government on the hosting of the SKAO’s Global Headquarters, located at Jodrell Bank near Manchester. 

Forming such agreements with the host countries is required by the SKA Observatory Convention, the SKAO’s founding document. Together, they will enable the Observatory to establish and operate its facilities, and to efficiently function. This includes the ability to recruit the local and international personnel it needs as well as acquire the assets and equipment as needed for the delivery of the SKA project.