SKA completes final reviews ahead of construction

by Mathieu Isidro on 16 September 2020
The SKA Organisation has now successfully passed all its final reviews ahead of submitting its Construction Proposal and Observatory Establishment and Delivery Plan to the SKA Board of Directors for their meeting this week.
A panorama of SKA Global Headquarters in the UK. (Credit: Juande Santander-Vela)

In recent months a series of independent external panels have examined the detailed design, costing, future operations plan and business support functions of the SKA, to ensure its overall readiness to move from planning to construction.

The SKA Project successfully passed its System Critical Design Review in December 2019, which endorsed the telescopes’ overall design, costing and planning, and closed all related actions by April 2020, marking the culmination of six years of work involving hundreds of people around the world. The SKA then underwent an external cost audit conducted by engineering consultancy Arup in early 2020.

“The cost audit was intended as a ‘ready to invest’ gate review,” says Dr Joseph McMullin, SKA Programme Director. “The reviewers concluded that overall, the current readiness, level of planning detail and approach to construction are logical and demonstrate best practice to support a smooth transition into the delivery phase. They confirmed the cost estimation and uncertainty quantification process were robust with additional recommendations which have been integrated into the submitted construction proposal. This was very positive, and reassuring!”

Artist’s impression of SKA-Low in Australia. (Credit: SKA Organisation)

On the operations side, the SKA underwent two major independent reviews. The first looked at the SKA Observatory’s plan to operate and maintain the telescopes to ensure the collection, processing and delivery of data to the international science community. The second assessed the business-enabling functions, such as Finance, Strategy, HR, Assurance, Procurement, and Communications, needed to support the future SKA Observatory in delivering on its mission.

“Conducting these reviews now was crucial to ensure we develop the most comprehensive and robust plan ahead of construction. It allowed us to bring people in with very deep expertise in delivering similar types of large-scale research infrastructures and benefit from their advice,” says Dr Lewis Ball, SKA Director of Operations.

The panels comprised experts from the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO),  the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), the Canada–France–Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), the European Spallation Source (ESS), and CERN. Both reviews were chaired by Dr Andreas Kaufer, Director of Operations for ESO.

“External reviews are good practice and an important ingredient to the management of large construction projects like SKA. They provide reassurance to the project team that they are on a good track with their project, that their assumptions and projections are sound and that no critical issues have been overlooked,” says Dr Kaufer. “It’s also always interesting to see how similar the problems are that we encounter in our projects. Adopting solutions that have been successful elsewhere can be important for the success of big projects.”

Overall, more than 250 formal observations and questions were raised and addressed resulting in 40 recommendations, all of which were accepted by SKAO and are being implemented.

”Both operations reviews have shown that SKAO is as well prepared as you can be at this stage of the project for the future operation of the Observatory. The responses of the team to the review boards’ questions demonstrated a deep understanding of the issues and challenges ahead,” says Dr Kaufer.

“I was really impressed by the strong team spirit across the organisation – scientists, engineers, administrators, managers and staff – all seem to push in the same direction: to get SKA built and SKAO going.”

The successful conclusion of all reviews and audits gives extra confidence to decision-makers to approve funding for construction later this year, but also to the SKA teams across the partnership and the science community at large that the project is on solid ground.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic initially threatened to delay the reviews, both were completed within the overall schedule, allowing the project to progress on time.

“I’m proud our teams were able to conduct these major reviews with such a positive outcome in the middle of a pandemic,” adds Dr Ball. “It’s been a very intense period of a few months, but we couldn’t have delivered these results without the years of work behind it by people at the SKA Organisation but also in the consortia and in partner organisations around the world – this is their work.”

Artist’s impression of SKA-Mid in South Africa. (Credit SKA Organisation)

Using input from these reviews, the teams finalised the SKA’s Construction Proposal and Observatory Establishment and Delivery Plan. Both have been submitted for the SKA’s Board of Directors meeting this September and will then go to the SKA Observatory Council, the governing body of the new inter-governmental organisation, in December for a final decision.

Dr McMullin concludes: “We’ve done all the planning, now it’s time to deliver.”