Switzerland takes key step towards SKAO

by Cassandra Cavallaro on 09 June 2021
The prestigious Swiss science and technology university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has signed a Cooperation Agreement with the SKA Observatory (SKAO) on behalf of the Swiss astronomy community.

The agreement between the SKAO and EPFL, which is one of two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, will allow the Swiss scientific and engineering community to participate in the project until a decision by the federal government on Switzerland to join the Observatory as a full Member.

Under the agreement, EPFL will cooperate with the SKAO member states Australia, China, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom, as a participant in the SKAO.  It allows EPFL to participate in meetings of the SKAO Council, the Observatory’s governing body and it is hoped that this represents a first step towards a formal engagement by Switzerland, as a Member of SKAO, in the future.

Swiss signing ceremony
SKAO Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond (left) and EPFL President Prof. Martin Vetterli signed the Cooperation Agreement during a virtual ceremony.

“Good news keeps coming in for the SKAO and after the recent accession of China to the Observatory, and the SKAO’s Council vote to accept France as a Member, I am very happy to welcome EPFL, with its renowned reputation for world-class science,” said Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond. “Alongside its own contributions, EPFL has coordinated the involvement of several Swiss institutions and industry partners that have played and will keep playing a critical role going forward. We are thrilled to continue to benefit from our Swiss colleagues’ experience and technical expertise as we prepare for the start of construction.”

Swiss involvement in the SKA project has been significant in recent years; under the Observatory’s forerunner, the SKA Organisation, Switzerland gained observer status in 2016 and participated in the telescope design phase. In April 2020, EPFL became a member of the Organisation representing the Swiss academic community.

Switzerland’s extensive motivations for involvement in the SKAO were outlined in the 2020 white paperSwiss Interests and Contribution to the SKA. It outlines the wide range of fundamental SKA science, from exo-planets to cosmology, in which the Swiss astrophysics community will be taking part as well as highlighting national interest in contributing to distributed radio frequency systems, high performance computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence for the SKA. The paper also noted Swiss industry expertise in data processing, system control and supervision, antennas and radio receivers and precise time management through the use of maser atomic clocks.

On the science front, scientists at Swiss institutions are participating in eight of the SKA’s Science Working Groups, including those focusing on galaxy evolution, cosmology and cosmic magnetism.

“I’m extremely happy that after many years of preparatory work, we are able to join the SKA Observatory adventure,” said EPFL President Prof. Martin Vetterli. “This is fantastic news not only for EPFL but also for Switzerland. The SKA is a very innovative project, bringing many countries together to tackle an unprecedented data science challenge, with the ultimate goal of increasing our understanding of the origin of our universe. I’m looking forward to a fruitful collaboration of our researchers at EPFL and across Switzerland to contribute to the success of the SKAO.”

The signature of the agreement comes a few days after the Federal Council -the country’s highest executive authority- confirmed their intention to eventually join the SKAO as full member, pending approval from Parliament.