National Research Council of Canada signs cooperation agreement with international radio observatory: SKAO

- Ottawa, Ontario

The National Research Council of Canada is supporting astronomical discovery in Canada, and will deliver "the brain" behind one of the world's largest networks of radio telescopes, through a 2-year cooperation agreement with the SKA Observatory

Construction of 2 of the world's largest radio telescopes has begun, and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has signed a 2-year cooperation agreement with the international SKA Observatory (SKAO), to allow Canada's scientific and engineering communities to continue participation in the project, while membership in the newly formed SKAO is given full consideration by the federal government. Canada has been a member of the SKAO's predecessor, the Square Kilometre Array Organisation, since its creation in 2011, and has been involved in the SKA project from its earliest stages.

"We are pleased to continue collaboration with our international partners on this transformative science facility," said Iain Stewart, President of the National Research Council of Canada. "This agreement will support leading edge astronomy, and create opportunities for Canadian industry with applications in areas such as telecommunications, consumer electronics and data centres, and open doors for ground-breaking discoveries by Canadian astronomers."

Discovery on the horizon

The SKAO is a next-generation radio astronomy observatory, which is anticipated to revolutionize our understanding of the Universe, from the origins of life to the laws of fundamental physics. The observatory is an international collaboration, headquartered in the United Kingdom and with 2 telescope arrays. One array is in South Africa, with 197 15-metre dishes, and the other is in Australia, with more than 100,000 smaller antennas grouped into 512 stations. In addition, data will be processed in regional centres located around the world.

The SKA has been decades in the making, and Canadian astronomers have identified access to the SKA as a top priority in their decadal long-range plans in 2000, 2010 and 2020. Scientists from across Canada participate in nearly all SKAO science working groups, covering the gamut from the astronomical systems that are thought to form the cradle of life, to the earliest properties of our Universe.

"The SKA will be a fantastic facility that will enable Canadian astronomers to make important new discoveries about how the Universe works," said Kristine Spekkens, Canada's SKA Science Director, and professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen's University. "The synergy between the capabilities of the SKA and the expertise of many Canadian astronomers is a key reason for the SKA's high priority within our community."

Phil Diamond, Director-General, SKAO, and Iain Stewart, President, NRC, signing the cooperative agreement

Phil Diamond, Director-General, SKAO, and Iain Stewart, President, NRC, signing the cooperative agreement.

Canada to build one of the brains powering the world's largest observatory

Considered by some to be one of the world's greatest scientific data challenges, the SKA's telescope in South Africa alone will need to process data being transferred hundreds of thousands times faster than average Canadian broadband download speeds. While an optical telescope captures only the visible light from the electromagnetic spectrum, radio telescopes reveal the radio portion of the spectrum emitted from objects in space. When received by telescopes, these distant signals are both faint and buried in noise. Canadian data processing technology, which was developed by the NRC's Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre and industry partner MDA, is behind the extraordinary effort to identify and measure the weak signals from space in the large data stream coming from the SKA telescope in South Africa.

"This agreement is important in identifying Canada's ongoing interest in the SKA Observatory through the National Research Council of Canada," said Professor Phil Diamond, SKAO Director-General. "Our Canadian colleagues have been key partners in the SKA Project since its inception, with significant contributions to the design of our telescopes. We look forward to continuing discussions with the NRC and the Canadian government about membership."

Canadian technical contributions to the SKAO telescopes have spin-off applications, which will help to advance other far-reaching industries, from data centres to satellite communications, robotics and more.

Impact on society and communities

Beyond transformative science and technology, impacts on society and communities have been a core consideration of the SKAO's mission. SKAO, and its precursor facilities around the world, such as the Murchison Widefield Array in Australia and MeerKAT in South Africa, have already generated socio-economic impacts in a number of areas; from creating employment for local communities, to celebrating artists and ancient cultural wisdom from the Australian and South African sites through the Shared Sky Indigenous astronomy and art exhibition. Building upon this, the SKAO will impact 4 core areas: the economy; society; sustainability and culture; and will contribute to addressing the United Nations' sustainable development goals.

Respecting Indigenous cultures and the local populations, and engaging positively with them, has been a key consideration for the SKA project since early in its design phase. These core principles are well aligned with the priorities of the Canadian astronomical community as expressed in the 2020 Long Range Plan for Canadian Astronomy.

With a mandate to operate Canada's telescopes, the NRC is proud to further this opportunity for the Canadian astronomy community.

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