First SKA-Low telescope antennas deployed in Australia

on 07 March 2024
The SKA-Low telescope has begun to take shape in Western Australia with the installation of the first antennas on site today, marking a major construction milestone for the SKAO.
The first SKA-Low antenna being installed on its ground mesh by two technicians. In the background, a camera crew films the moment.
The first SKA-Low antennas were installed by an SKAO-CSIRO team which includes field technicians from the Wajarri Yamaji community. Credit: SKAO

They are the first of the 131,072 two-metre-tall, Christmas tree-shaped antennas that will make up the radio telescope at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, on Wajarri Country.

SKA-Low is one of the SKAO's two telescopes currently under construction on two continents; its counterpart, SKA-Mid, is being built in South Africa.

Among its science goals, SKA-Low will enable scientists to explore the first billion years after the so-called dark ages of the Universe 

Six countries worked together to design SKA-Low: Australia, China, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and the UK. The latest antenna design was optimised by the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in collaboration with CNR-IEIIT and the Italian industrial partner SIRIO Antenne, building on previous designs developed within the international consortium. SIRIO was awarded the contract to manufacture the first 77,000 antennas for the telescope.

‘Next generation instruments’

SKAO Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond travelled to Western Australia for the assembly and installation of the first SKA-Low antennas.  

“Astronomers have been dreaming of this project for decades, and to see the antennas that make up the SKA-Low telescope finally on the ground is a proud moment for us all,” he said.  

“These telescopes are next-generation instruments, allowing us to test Einstein's theories and to observe space in more detail than ever before. With this telescope in Australia we will watch the births and deaths of the first stars and galaxies, giving us invaluable clues about how the Universe evolved.” 

Across the Indian Ocean in South Africa, a similar milestone is imminent for the SKA-Mid telescope, which will ultimately comprise 197 dishes. Components for the first SKA-Mid dishes arrived on site in the Karoo in February and assembly is now under way.

SKA-Low Telescope Director Dr Sarah Pearce said: “The telescopes are like time machines – we’ll see things we’ve never been able to see in the history of humanity. 

“It may not look like other telescopes you’ve seen. But the SKA-Low telescope in Australia will be able to map the sky 135 times faster than other state-of-the-art telescopes, and will be so sensitive that it can detect the faintest radio signals that have travelled billions of light years across space.”

Building on local and international partnerships

Globally, 16 countries are part of the SKAO’s effort to build the telescopes. In Australia, the SKAO is also collaborating with CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, to build and operate the SKA-Low telescope. 

In 2022, an Indigenous Land Use Agreement was finalised between the Wajarri Yamaji People and the Australian and Western Australian governments, as well as CSIRO. It ensures Wajarri cultural heritage will be protected and the Wajarri Yamaji People will receive sustainable and intergenerational benefits in areas such as enterprise, training and education.  

This week marks the start of on-site work for new field technicians, who will be tasked with the massive technical challenge of building more than 130,000 antennas across 74 km of the Murchison region. The group of 10 field technicians, seven of whom are from the Wajarri community, are the first employees hired in technical roles to build the antennas on site. 

The field technicians were recruited to participate in a 12-month training program, established by teams from the SKAO and CSIRO. The training program is intended to provide the skills they need to build the SKA-Low telescope, as well as transferable skills that will improve their long-term job prospects. The SKAO and CSIRO teams worked closely with the Wajarri Yamaji People to encourage recruitment of Wajarri employees in these roles. 

Prof. Diamond said he was thrilled to see not only the progress on construction,which is due to be completed by the end of the decade, but also the realisation of the partnership with the Wajarri community.

“In Australia, the Wajarri Yamaji People have been observing the skies and stars from this location for tens of thousands of years, so to now be sharing those same skies and stars with them is a pleasure and privilege,” he said.


Further comments: 

SKA-Low Senior Project Manager André van Es

“Seeing these first antennas installed is momentous for everyone involved and is the result of a huge collaborative effort across our global partnership. To be here to see the design coming together as a telescope, and to meet the new field technicians and see the impact within the local community, is very special. Now we're focused on our next major milestone, the completion of the first four stations, marking the first stage of delivery of the telescope.”

CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Doug Hilton 

“The SKA project truly evokes another scientific age of wonder, promising new discoveries that will challenge and enrich our understanding of the Universe itself. Collaboration is what is bringing this project to life and that’s why it’s so exciting to welcome new team members in the joint SKAO-CSIRO traineeship program, including our new Wajarri team members. We’ve developed the traineeship program in partnership with the Wajarri community to benefit and learn from their incredible knowledge and wisdom and to grow employment opportunities on Country, reflecting our vision to create a better future for all Australians.”  

Wajarri Yamaji Aboriginal Corporation CEO Jamie Strickland 

“Through this important work, opportunities will continue to be created that allow our people to actively manage our heritage and culture and be active participants in the increased employment and economic development opportunities that will flow from the project. It also firmly places Wajarri Yamaji People on the world stage, and clearly shows how traditional knowledge and culture can help inform today’s technology and our understanding of our place in the Universe. We look forward to building on our strong partnerships with SKAO and CSIRO, and the Australian and Western Australian governments, particularly where this will benefit Wajarri Yamaji People for years to come”.

Wajarri SKA-Low Field Technician Lockie Ronan

"It means a lot to me to be out here working on such a revolutionary project. The fact that it could be a breakthrough project for science is really exciting. It also means a lot to me spiritually that I get to be out on Country, connecting with the land and my culture while I work. It’s a great team, we all bring different aspects to the group, but we’ve quickly learned how to work together and get through any challenges that come up. My parents and grandparents are proud and ecstatic to know I’m out here working on this project on my pop’s land."

The SKAO recognises and acknowledges the Indigenous peoples and cultures that have traditionally lived on the lands on which the SKAO facilities are located. In Australia, the SKAO acknowledges the Wajarri Yamaji People as the Traditional Owners and native title holders of Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. The observatory site has been established with the support of the Australian and Western Australian governments.

Seven team members in hi-vis safety jackets standing with the first SKA-Low antenna installed on site
The first of four antennas installed on site at the event on Wajarri Yamaji Country. Credit: SKAO
Lockie Ronan, Wajarri SKA-Low field technician, with a row of SKA-Low antennas
SKA-Low Field Technician Lockie Ronan, who is from the Wajarri community. Credit: SKAO

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