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Projects and facilities

Square Kilometre Array hit by €250m shortfall

26 Nov 2019
Image of SKA dishes
Costly move: if additional funding for the Square Kilometre Array is not found that it might force researchers to pare back the number of low-frequency antennas that could reduce the observatory’s resolution.(Courtesy: SKA Organisation)

Scientists finalizing plans for the world’s largest radio telescope are in a race against time to try and plug at least some of a €250m hole in the project’s finances. They are hoping to persuade new and existing member states of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) to stump up more than €100m of additional funds within the next year to avoid reducing the instrument’s core scientific research, which one leading expert says would raise doubts about whether the project is worth building at all.

When built, the SKA should consist of several hundred mid-frequency radio dishes spread out across southern Africa alongside a few hundred thousand low-frequency dipole antennas located in Australia. This would allow astronomers to peer back to the first stars in the universe and study gravitational waves, among other things. However, a series of price rises means that the observatory’s design, agreed in 2015 and itself a much slimmed-down version of the original blueprint, now has a cost well above a cap of €691m that was imposed by member states in 2013.

At a meeting in Nice last week, Andrea Ferrara, an astrophysicist at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, and chair of the SKA’s science and engineering advisory committee, told representatives of the project’s 10 current member states that at least €800m will be needed to ensure the observatory’s core research remains intact. Speaking to Physics World, he pointed out that the current estimated total cost of €940m means that even increasing the funding to €800m would still lead to cuts. Things that might potentially be pared back, he says, include computing power as well as the low-frequency antennas, which would reduce the observatory’s resolution.

Tough questions

SKA director-general Philip Diamond says he is “working very, very hard” to reduce the funding gap. One avenue is trying to increase contributions from the countries who agreed earlier this year to set up an intergovernmental organisation to build the SKA — Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the UK – and possibly also Canada, India and Sweden. He also hopes that new countries, such as Germany, France, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea and Spain, could be persuaded to join the project.

Diamond foresees the intergovernmental body, known as the SKA Observatory, existing as a legal entity by mid-2020, with governments then committing funding by November or December that year. He says that discussions with potential new member states “gives me confidence that we are considerably above” the current cost cap, although he acknowledges that none of these countries “are guaranteed yet”, adding that the existing countries “are all showing flexibility in considering looking for additional money”. Diamond admits, however, that they are investigating cuts as well as possibly delaying construction if the necessary funding is not available in a year’s time. Construction is currently envisaged to be complete by 2028, he adds.

According to Ferrara, any less than €800m for the SKA would make it “difficult to cover what would be considered transformative science right now”. As to whether it would be worth building the observatory at all if no new funding materializes, he replies that “that is a very tough question”. It would, he says, “mean building an instrument that will not deliver what it was supposed to do”.

Timeline: The Square Kilometre Array

2006 Southern Africa and Australia are shortlisted to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) beating off competition from Brazil and China. Due to be completed in 2020 and cost €1.5bn, the facility would comprise about 4000 dishes, each 10 m wide, spread over an area 3000 km across

2012 The SKA Organisation fails to pick a single site for the telescope and decides to split the project between Southern Africa and Australia. Philip Diamond is appointed SKA’s first permanent director-general replacing the Dutch astronomer Michiel van Haarlem, who had been interim SKA boss

2013 Germany becomes the 10th member of SKA, joining Australia, Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the UK. SKA’s temporary headquarters at Jodrell Bank in the UK opens. SKA members propose a slimmed-down version of SKA known as SKA1. With a cost cap of €674m, it would consist of 250 dishes in Africa and about 250 000 antennas in Australia

2014 Germany announces it will pull out of SKA the following year

2015 Jodrell Bank beats off a bid by Padua in Italy to host SKA’s headquarters. India joins SKA

2017 Members scale back SKA again following a price hike of €150m, which involves reducing the number of African dishes to 130 and spreading them out over 120 km

2018 The first prototype dish for SKA is unveiled in China. Spain joins SKA

2019 Convention signed in Rome to create an intergovernmental body known as the SKA Observatory. The Max Planck Society in Germany joins SKA. New Zealand announce it will pull out of SKA in 2020

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