Early involvement and Ratification
Portugal’s vision is that active participation in research infrastructures like the SKAO is a powerful way to power the virtuous circle created by astronomy to benefit society. Indeed, on the one hand, fascinating scientific results feed human stories about nature and its secrets, spark our curiosity to know how things work, and give us a sense of meaning and inspiration through what human cooperation can achieve. On the other hand, new technology is being developed that stir and boost the local ecosystem, creating or complementing existing capacities.
During the pre-construction phase of the SKA project, Portugal was represented by Enabling Green E-Science for the Square Kilometre Array (ENGAGE SKA), a national radio astronomy research infrastructure backed by the Portuguese National Roadmap for Research Infrastructures. ENGAGE SKA 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 telescopes’ design and scientific research. ENGAGE SKA built a broad partnership bringing together universities and industry within the SKA design consortia.
Portugal signed the SKA Observatory convention as a founding member of the SKAO in 2019. Parliamentary approval took place in December 2020, confirming the country’s ambition to become a full member of the intergovernmental organisation.
The SKAO is undoubtedly one of the leading research infrastructures of this century and is designed to provide discoveries with the potential to transform our understanding of the Cosmos.
Portugal has a mature astronomical community, which is actively integrated with international networks. It is estimated that around thirty radio astronomers in almost ten different institutions are currently participating in the global effort to refine the science of the SKAO and in the preparatory experiments for the definition of the scientific requirements and operations of the Observatory.
The Portuguese SKA White book (Barbosa et al. 2020) offers a vibrant compilation of the scientific engagement of the Portuguese community with the SKAO.
Involvement in the construction phase
Construction of SKAO officially began on July 1, 2021. Portugal has committed to contributing 1.8% of the cost of the Observatory.
Currently, three Portuguese companies are participating in the development of the SKAO software.
National participation in the assembly, installation, and verification of antennas in South Africa in cooperation with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) is planned from 2023.
A third work package in the area of networks is currently under discussion.
For Portugal, the decision to join an international organisation of the nature of the SKAO, whose members are spread over five continents, strengthens and reaffirms the country’s vocation to be seen as a place that is worthy of investment in science and innovation. Portugal sees this investment as a support for its development and understands the construction of knowledge as the engine to promote international cooperation and peace among peoples.
Growth potential and societal benefits
The present and future impacts of SKAO are fully aligned with Portugal Space 2030 Strategy. The country’s space strategy emphasises human capital development by advancing STEM education, strengthening diplomatic relations through scientific cooperation, and promoting technological innovation for social well-being and a more sustainable country.
The science cases addressed by the SKAO require multidisciplinary teams with skills in physics, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, and even biology. Astronomers must be able to manipulate and extract information from large volumes of data obtained with a wide variety of methods and at wavelengths from radio to X-rays and gamma rays. This is done with a high degree of incorporation of data processing techniques (e.g., Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence).
The SKAO network of Regional Centres (so-called SRC) is a central component in the value chain of the Observatory. It will require a significant coordination effort to build a distributed IT infrastructure to receive, process, analyze and distribute the data to the scientific community. There is, therefore, great potential for development in the area of ICT and computer science related to the national contribution to the SRC network.
From the point of view of science education and capacity building, modern astronomy is indeed a true STEM school. Research results and methods used by professional researchers can be adapted to train and inspire future generations and the general public.
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