7 October 2021

Chalmers awarded key role in project to build the world's biggest radio telescopes

Chalmers will be leading Sweden’s participation in the project to build the world's largest radio telescopes. The role formalised between Chalmers and the SKA Observatory will apply for the next two years until Sweden becomes a formal member in the international organisation.

The signing ceremony on 30 September 2021 in Gothenburg was attended by John Conway, director of Onsala Space Observatory, Lars Börjesson, board member of the SKAO, Stefan Bengtsson, president of Chalmers and Eva Wirström, division head for Onsala Space Observatory. Image credit: Chalmers/R. Cumming

The international SKA Observatory (SKAO) was set up in early 2021. Its two vast telescopes, located at remote sites in South Africa and Australia, will together become one of this century’s most important scientific facilities. 

“With the new agreement in place, Chalmers has a new, official role as leading Swedish interests in the construction of the SKA Observatory's giant telescopes. Funding for Swedish participation in the construction project is already secured, thanks to support from the Swedish Research Council and Vinnova,” says Lars Börjesson, board member of the SKAO.

The two SKA telescopes are made up of many individual antennas, each sensitive to invisible radio waves from space. In total, 197 dish antennas will be placed in South Africa, forming a telescope for shorter wavelengths. Over 130,000 smaller antennas will make up the other telescope, located in Australia, sensitive to longer wavelengths. 

Both will be able to map radio waves from the cosmos with unprecedented sensitivity. The telescopes will investigate the mysteries of dark energy, dark matter, and cosmic magnetism, study how galaxies have evolved, test Einstein’s theories, and search for clues to the origins of life.

“Scientists in Sweden and all over the world want to use the SKA telescopes, to ask some of our biggest questions about the universe. Membership in the SKA Observatory makes it possible for Swedish science and technology to be involved in building these unique telescopes. It also ensures access to scientific data, and the chance to make exciting discoveries in astronomy and physics,” explains John Conway.

Openings for industry

The interim arrangement means that Swedish companies are already eligible to submit tenders for industrial contracts on equal terms as the SKAO’s current member countries. 

This is a great opportunity for Sweden’s high-tech industries to get involved in a challenging and extremely exciting project.

John Conway
Director of Onsala Space Observatory and professor of radio astronomy at Chalmers

When the SKA telescopes are operational, they will generate data in quantities that make what today counts as 'big data' look small. 

The new arrangement also means a green light for the establishment in Sweden of one of SKAO's regional data processing centres. These centres are designed to handle the flood of data from SKA’s telescopes and supply final data products to astronomers.

Swedish tech opening new windows on the universe

The documents signed on 30 September 2021 by Stefan Bengtsson, Chalmers' president, and Philip Diamond, Director General of the SKA Observatory, give Chalmers the responsibility of representing Sweden in the project during the next two years. During that time, national processes will continue towards establishing Sweden as a member country of SKAO.

“Sweden has been involved in the SKA project since the start. It’s wonderful to welcome Chalmers and Onsala Space Observatory in this new official role, just as building work is starting in South Africa and in Australia,” says Philip Diamond.

“Before long, the SKA telescopes will begin to show us a whole new universe, giving scientists all over the world new discoveries and new challenges. When that happens, we can be proud of having supplied key Swedish technology to the project, technology with its roots right here at Chalmers and at Onsala Space Observatory,” says Stefan Bengtsson.

More about Sweden’s role in the SKA project

Onsala Space Observatory represented Swedish interests in the SKA design process between 2012 and 2021 as a member of the SKA organisation. 

Chalmers and Swedish companies have made important contributions to the design and prototyping of the SKA telescopes, with the support of Big Science Sweden and working together with colleagues in Canada, France, India, Spain, and South Africa.

  • The telescopes’ physically largest radio receivers, known as Band 1, have been designed and prototyped at Onsala Space Observatory. After a competitive procurement process, they will be manufactured by a Swedish company and a complete set delivered to the SKAO telescope in South Africa. 

  • Innovative low-noise amplifiers for Band 1 and for two other SKA receiver bands will be supplied by the Gothenburg company Low Noise Factory, making use of the Chalmers MyFab clean room facility for the fabrication of core components.

  • The digital sampler design for the telescope in South Africa is now being finalised by the Gothenburg company Qamcom Research & Technology AB. The digital samplers will also be manufactured by a Swedish company after a competitive procurement process.

Swedish involvement in the SKAO is also opening new opportunities in data storage, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. 

“At Onsala Space Observatory we’ve already started exploring these opportunities, working together with the Chalmers Fraunhofer Centre for Industrial Mathematics. That was demonstrated recently by an outstanding Swedish team performance in a recent international data challenge, applying machine learning to simulated SKA data,” says John Conway.

More about the SKA Observatory and Onsala Space Observatory

The SKAO, formally known as the SKA Observatory, is a global collaboration of Member States whose mission is to build and operate cutting-edge radio telescopes to transform our understanding of the Universe, and deliver benefits to society through global collaboration and innovation.

Headquartered in the UK, its two telescope arrays will be constructed in Australia and South Africa and will be the two most advanced radio telescope networks on Earth. A later expansion is envisioned in both countries and other African partner countries. Together with other state-of-the-art research facilities, the SKAO telescopes will explore the unknown frontiers of science and deepen our understanding of key processes, including the formation and evolution of galaxies, fundamental physics in extreme environments, and the origins of life. Through the development of innovative technologies and its contribution to addressing societal challenges, the SKAO will play its part in addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and deliver significant benefits across its membership and beyond.

The SKAO recognises and acknowledges the indigenous peoples and cultures that have traditionally lived on the lands on which the SKAO facilities are located.

Onsala Space Observatory is Sweden's national infrastructure for radio astronomy, hosted by the Department of Space, Earth and Environment at Chalmers University of Technology. The observatory provides researchers with equipment for the study of both the distant universe and the Earth. At Onsala, 45 km south of Gothenburg, the observatory operates four radio telescopes and a station in the international telescope LOFAR. The SKA project is one of several international projects in which the observatory participates. Onsala Space Observatory receives funding from the Swedish Research Council and from the Swedish National Mapping Agency to support its activities in astronomy and geoscience, respectively.