Portugal becomes fifth country to ratify SKA Observatory Convention

by Cassandra Cavallaro on 11 December 2020
Following a recent approval by its national Parliament, Portugal has ratified the Convention establishing the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO). The Convention was signed by seven countries, including Portugal, in Rome on 12 March 2019, a critical milestone that triggered a legislative ratification process in each country.

Portugal joins the Netherlands, Italy, South Africa and Australia as founding members of SKAO, the intergovernmental organisation tasked with building and operating the world’s largest radio telescopes, namely the SKA telescopes, to be located in South Africa and Australia.

SKAO will come into being once the remaining host country, the UK, home of the SKAO Global Headquarters, has completed their ratification process. This is expected to happen before year’s end, opening the door for the first governing SKAO Council meeting to be held in January 2021.

IGO Signing Ceremony
Portugal’s Minister of Science, Technology and Education Manuel Heitor (third from left) signed the SKA Observatory Convention in Rome in March 2019.

Portuguese involvement in SKAO will be managed by the Portuguese Space Agency, Portugal Space, acting on behalf of the Portuguese government to promote the country on the international Space scene and strengthen their collaboration on the world stage.

ENGAGE SKA, or Enabling Green E-Science for the Square Kilometre Array, a national radio astronomy research infrastructure backed by the Portuguese National Roadmap for Research Infrastructures, developed a strategy to ensure a strong Portuguese involvement in the SKA project, fostering the inclusion of Portuguese scientists, engineers and industry in the SKA’s design and scientific research. ENGAGE SKA built a broad partnership bringing together universities and industry within the SKA design consortia.

“Portugal’s participation in the SKA programme and the fact that Portugal is a founding member of the SKA Observatory opens new opportunities for young people, researchers, astronomy professionals and amateurs in Portugal to be involved in one of the most revolutionary scientific cooperation initiatives at a global level, which will make it possible to make high-resolution astronomy using any of our computers or portable cell phones,” says Manuel Heitor, Portuguese Minister of Science, Technology and Education. “This programme finally democratises access to astronomy and to the knowledge of the universe, stimulating the curiosity and scientific creativity of young people and adults, as well as opening new paths  to investigate to deepen the knowledge about the creation of life and the fundamental principles of the evolution of the Universe.”

“I am very pleased to welcome Portugal as one of the founding members of SKAO,” said Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond. “Europe has a strong radio astronomy base and so it is great to see more European involvement in SKA. Portugal becomes the third European country to ratify the SKA convention with more on the path to membership. Portugal’s expertise in the areas of green computing and data handling are particularly welcome.”

ENGAGE SKA has contributed to several key computing infrastructures, now part of the Portuguese Advanced Computing Network. This includes the 239 TFLOPS supercomputer, Oblivion@SKA inaugurated in February 2020, and the Centre of Competence for Advanced Computing at the University of Aveiro (CCACUA), inaugurated in November 2020. These facilities are designed to support the wider Portuguese scientific community, and a large share of their compute time will be open to society for studies as diverse as fire monitoring, precision agriculture, green energy, smart factories or the COVID-19 pandemic, in a prime example of radio astronomy’s wider impact in society and in addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. ENGAGE SKA and CCACUA played a key role in the SKA software development to date, and in partnership with UCLCA-Coimbra will play a vital part in the SKA’s second Science Data Challenge which is about to start, as one of the high-performance computing centres that will store simulated SKA data for astronomers to access.

Portugal also boasts a strong research and engineering community. Scientists working at Portuguese research institutions are involved in nine of the SKA’s 14 Science Working Groups and Focus Groups, and Portuguese engineers were involved in many aspects of the SKA’s design phase, including the Telescope Manager, Mid-Frequency Aperture Array, Signal and Data Transport, and Science Data Processor consortia, and the Power Task Force. ENGAGE SKA has been particularly focused on green technologies and the sustainability aspects of the SKA, previously winning EU funding for prototyping work involving solar-powered telescope dishes.

“Portugal is taking a big step forward in the strategy for astronomical science to not only provide the scientific community with greater opportunities for the development of science, but also for an entire industrial sector that opens up new business and technology development opportunities”, says Ricardo Conde, Portugal Space President. “Together with the Portuguese participation in other international organisations, this is an opportunity to look forward to increasing the Portuguese scientific community and to attract young students for these domains of science. Being part of SKAO, the Portuguese Space Agency is committed to explore new opportunities within an international frame collaboration.”

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