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Towards the SKA Observatory

The SKA will be one observatory operating two telescopes on three continents (clockwise from left: artist’s impression of SKA-low in Australia; SKA Global Headquarters in the UK; artist’s impression of SKA-mid in South Africa)

Few projects come close to the scope and ambition of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) as a scientific endeavour. Alongside the talents of thousands of skilled professionals and the development of groundbreaking technology, the SKA requires a governance structure capable of delivering such a huge global project.

Geographically distributed between three host countries, and with more than a dozen member nations, the SKA demands an extraordinary level of international cooperation. As it becomes a reality on the ground, facilitating the smooth movement of equipment, money and people across borders is essential.

This was the impetus behind transitioning the SKA Organisation – a private, non-profit company which has overseen the telescope design phase – into the SKA Observatory, an intergovernmental organisation established through international treaty, similar to CERN and the European Space Agency. The Observatory will be the legal entity responsible for constructing and operating the SKA telescopes in Australia and South Africa, with its headquarters in the United Kingdom.

This model was first proposed in October 2013, and two years later the formal negotiations began to draft the SKA Observatory Convention.

Establishing the SKA Observatory

The SKA Observatory Convention was signed on 12 March 2019 by government representatives from (L-R in the picture) United Kingdom, China, Portugal, Italy, South Africa, the Netherlands and Australia.

After two and a half years of multilateral negotiations led by Italy, the text of the SKA Observatory Convention was agreed in May 2018 and signed on 12 March 2019 in the Italian capital, Rome. Seven countries became the initial signatories to the Convention:  Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Others are expected to join them in due time; India and Sweden, who also took part in the negotiations, are following further internal processes before signing the treaty. Together, these countries will form the founding members of the SKA Observatory. Other member nations are then expected to join as the project seeks to broaden its membership further.

As the depository of the SKA Observatory Convention, the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office is overseeing the formal process of ratification and entry into force. This includes holding the original signed Convention in its vault in London, and creating certified true copies for each signatory state, which were distributed in March 2019.

Entry into force

The Convention stipulates that the SKA Observatory will enter into force once five signatories have ratified the text, including all three host countries: Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom. This ratification process varies by country, and the FCO maintains a status list on each country’s progress which is available online here.

It has also set out the required format for ratification of the treaty, and the accession process for countries joining after the Observatory is established, all of which will follow the United Nations model.

Once established, the SKA Observatory will be only the second intergovernmental organisation in the world dedicated to astronomy, after the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

The transition period

The signing of the SKA Observatory Convention also signalled the creation of a new interim body, the Council Preparatory Task Force (CPTF), which held its first meeting the following day (13 March 2019) in Rome. The CPTF is independent of the existing SKA Board of Directors.

While the Convention ratification process is under way, the CPTF is tasked with making all of the preparations necessary for the first meeting of the SKA Council, which will be the permanent governing body of the SKA Observatory. The Council will meet for the first time once the SKA Observatory Convention has entered into force.