Contact 11

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LET’S TALK ABOUT Let’s talk about... solar physics Issue 11 | September 2022 The SKAO’s Magazine


3 Prof. Philip Diamond, SKAO Director-General


4 SKA space science documentary airs in Australia

5 Celebrating the history of radio astronomy at the UK’s Jodrell Bank

6 Swiss celebrate SKAO membership at Davos

7 SKAO features in special section of SPIE journal

7 SARAO appoints next managing director

8 China publishes development report on participation in the SKA

9 Experts gather for exploratory workshop on SRC computing technology

9 UK announces major funding for SKA Regional Centre strategy


10 Solar physics


14 Science communication in practice


16 Prof. Philip Diamond reappointed to head up SKAO

17 New Science Data Challenge hones hunt for hydrogen

18 Two minutes with… Prof. Richard Schilizzi

18 Progress on show at first SKA telescopes status meetings

19 Growth of SKAO teams in Australia and South Africa gathers pace

20 SKAO launches brand new website

21 SKA Science Working Groups highlight their research goals


22 Software for telescopes surges ahead


24 A truly global enterprise

26 Local impact study of HERA shows direct benefits of radio astronomy infrastructure

27 Promising beginnings for Australia’s newest supercomputer

28 SKA precursor telescopes don ‘sunglasses’ to find brightest ever pulsar

29 Astronomers detect galactic space laser

30 Strange slow-spinning neutron star discovered in ‘stellar graveyard’

31 The Dwingeloo Test Station: a major milestone towards LOFAR2.0


32 Simphiwe Madlanga – Coordinator: Science Engagement, SARAO


36 New Eyes on the Universe: ngVLA and SKA conference

36 Registration open for final ESCAPE meeting

37 Major international events fill the SKAO calendar

38 National Science Weeks engage thousands in South Africa and Australia


40 SKAO in the news

40 Astronomy inspires bluedot festival-goers


41 SKAO and partner jobs

Awards and honours

42 Celebrating our community

2 CONTACT ISSUE 11 06 16 Contents 10 28 37 30

This might seem to be too much but nevertheless I look upon SKAO and our global partners as one small, bright spark amongst the gloom and doom we read in our newspapers, and a live exemplar of collective effort driven by a common goal and a noble mission. Due to the efforts of the entire SKAO staff, our partners in CSIRO and SARAO and in all of the institutions amongst our member states, we continue to surge ahead with more construction contracts signed, work proceeding, milestones being achieved and real progress visible to all. As indicated in Contact10, we are not immune from what is happening in the wider world, but we are trying to anticipate issues as much as possible, and are working to overcome them as they arise with the support of Council. We are on an inexorable path to building the two largest radio telescopes in the world and we should all feel pride in what is being achieved. As always, Contact brings stories to its readership that emphasise that progress, and I hope you read them all.

At the time of writing this foreword, it was announced that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Head of State

of three of our SKAO family (Australia, Canada and the UK) had passed away. As a mark of respect to our host country the UK, we have published a short statement on the SKAO website to express our condolences to the Royal family, and the citizens and governments of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.

As an anecdote, some of our readers will remember that the Queen almost visited the SKAO HQ in early 2020. We have hosted many VIPs, senior government figures, MPs, etc. over time but this would have been the first time we would have hosted a Head of State. After countless meetings and careful and extensive planning with a large number of stakeholders, we hosted a final scouting visit from Buckingham Palace literally days before the visit, ready for what would have been a memorable event… until Covid struck, and the UK and SKAO entered into lockdown, three days before the planned visit. The commemorative plaque was never used, it now sits in the Comms storeroom for posterity.

Dear Friends and Colleagues, One can’t say that the world isn’t throwing some challenges in front of us all: we’ve had 2.5 years of a pandemic, which has still not fully receded; wars are still affecting several corners of our planet; and, over the last 9 months or so, the spectre of rapidly increasing energy costs and inflation in some parts of the world. Climate change is clearly rearing its ugly head, with devastating floods in Pakistan, megafires in North America, and drought across China, Europe, East Africa and elsewhere.
The flags of Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the SKA Observatory at half-mast on Friday 9 September following the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

SKA space science documentary airs in Australia

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) recently partnered with Perth-based production company Beam Me Up Media on a documentary exploring the scientific efforts behind establishing the SKA-Low telescope in Australia.

The Hidden Universe – Discovering the Square Kilometre Array, which aired nationwide in Australia earlier this year, welcomes viewers down under to southern skies for an Aussie space adventure. The programme is hosted by four space crusaders, including two ICRAR researchers, whose love of the night sky brings them together on an outback cosmic adventure from the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth, through Western Australia’s pristine dark skies, to the remote Murchison region where the SKA-Low telescope is being built.

With unprecedented access to the CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, the documentary explains the SKA project using vibrant imagery, time-lapse astrophotography, clever science animations and an immersive original soundtrack.

The Hidden Universe also showcases Western Australia’s worldclass dark night skies and how astronomers are working across the region to help protect this pristine night sky asset.

The programme entwines modern astronomy with ancient Aboriginal astronomy, revealing a deeper connection to the glittering stars overhead. Around a campfire, local Aboriginal people share their ancient art of stargazing through a rich tapestry of dreamtime stories.

From the comfort of their living rooms, viewers can hitch a ride and traverse wild outback landscapes and mysterious regions of space, as the hidden Universe is revealed.

Viewers in Australia can watch The Hidden Universe on Seven Plus

4 CONTACT ISSUE 11 In brief
RIGHT: Kat Ross, presenting at the at the SKA-Low prototype station on site. Credit: ICRAR The show’s four presenters, Kat Ross, Dr Luke Davies, Donna Vanzetti, and Dan Paris, at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, Western Australia. Credit: ICRAR

Celebrating the history of radio astronomy at the UK’s Jodrell Bank

The Jodrell Bank Centre for Engagement (previously known as Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre), part of The University of Manchester, UK, has marked a new chapter in its mission to engage and inspire future generations, with the opening of its highly anticipated First Light Pavilion.

First Light opened its doors on 4 June 2022, welcoming visitors from across the UK and beyond to the site which not only played an important role in the birth of radio astronomy, but which will continue to do so for generations to come as the home of both the Jodrell Bank Observatory and SKAO Global Headquarters.

An architecturally stunning building designed by international firm Hassell, First Light is a grass-topped 76m-diameter dome which mirrors the shape and scale of Jodrell Bank’s landmark Lovell Telescope, part of the SKA pathfinder e-MERLIN telescope array.

The story of Jodrell Bank is brought to life with innovative digital displays, projections, and archive material, in an exhibition created by leading designers Casson Mann which uses the actual panels from the original surface of the Lovell Telescope. With a state-of-the-art auditorium and curved projection screen, visitors are immersed in the awe-inspiring heritage of Jodrell Bank and the cutting-edge science being done at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics.

First Light at Jodrell Bank is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the UK Government (DCMS), The University of Manchester and a number of kind donors, including the Wolfson, Garfield Weston, Denise Coates, and Stavros Niarchos foundations.

RIGHT: The First Light Pavilion from the outside (top), and its indoor projection room (bottom). Credit: Jodrell Bank Centre for Engagement

Swiss celebrate SKAO membership at Davos

Switzerland marked its membership in the SKA Observatory at the World Economic Forum in Davos in May.

The SKAO Council Chair, Dr Catherine Cesarsky, and DirectorGeneral, Prof. Philip Diamond, discussed the advantages that membership in the world’s largest and most ambitious radio astronomy collaboration holds. They were joined by others who played a crucial role in getting Switzerland on board, including Martina Hirayama, State Secretary of the State Secretariat for Education, Research, and Innovation (SERI), Prof. Martin Vetterli, president of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), and Prof. Jean-Paul Kneib, Swiss scientific delegate to the SKAO Council.

Switzerland became the SKAO’s eighth member after the country’s Federal Council approved its membership in December 2021. Their nod followed the Swiss Parliament’s decision to commit 33.6 million CHF (~€34 million) towards the construction of the SKA telescopes and their operation until 2030.

Swiss experts – from academic institutions, industry, and technical partners – will assist in delivering advanced receivers for dish antennas, precision timing, automation, and signal processing. The SKAO has already awarded a contract to Swiss company Cosylab to help build the software for its transformational telescopes.

In exchange, Switzerland will gain access to the vast trove of data (~710 PBytes/year) that will be generated by the SKA telescopes. These scientific products will help advance fundamental research as outlined in a 2020 whitepaper by the Swiss astrophysics community. To make this possible, Switzerland plans to further contribute to the development of the European SKA Regional Centre (SRC). The SRC’s Swiss branch will provide the data interface for the country’s scientists.

Since gaining membership, Switzerland’s involvement has been organised through a strong consortium of research institutions*, called SKACH, in part funded by SERI. Before that, EPFL led the effort on behalf of the Swiss community, notably through EPFL’s membership in the SKA Organisation, precursor to the SKAO.

* The SKACH consortium includes: École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz (FHNW), Universität Zürich (UZH), Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ), Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften (ZHAW), Universität Basel (UniBAS), Université de Genève (UniGE), Haute École spécialisée de Suisse Occidentale (HES-SO), Centro Svizzero di Calcolo Scientifico (CSCS).

BELOW: ”Switzerland joins the SKAO” event, hosted at the House of Switzerland in Davos during the World Economic Forum.

SKAO features in special section of SPIE journal

In its first issue of 2022, the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments and Systems (JATIS) dedicated a special section to the SKA Observatory, featuring 26 papers from partners across the project. The journal is published by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

With the SKAO established and its two telescopes in construction, the aim of this special section was to provide an upto-date overview of the SKA project and its plans for the future.

Guest editors of the section were the SKAO’s Dr Anna Bonaldi and Luca Stringhetti, Associate Prof. Stefan J. Wijnholds of ASTRON and Stellenbosch University, and Prof. Justin Jonas of SARAO and Rhodes University.

“We invited contributions on different engineering aspects of the SKA design,” says Dr Bonaldi, “in particular those posing significant technological challenges, such as large-N radio interferometry [N being the number of antennas], resilience to radio frequency interference, high sensitivity, high system complexity, a harsh operating environment and large data volumes.”

Among the papers are two reviews on the SKA-Low and SKA-Mid telescopes written by several SKAO colleagues as first authors. There are also contributions from SKA precursors and pathfinders, which are not only acting as technology demonstrators for components of the SKA, but are also pioneering some of its planned observations.

“As editors, we would like to thank all authors and referees that contributed to the special section, as well as all the researchers, engineers, and professionals around the world who are making the SKA project a reality,” adds Dr Bonaldi.

All the papers are available on the SPIE website

SARAO appoints next managing director

Pontsho Maruping will be the new managing director of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), part of the NRF, with effect from 1 October 2022. She will succeed Dr Rob Adam, who’s been managing director since 2016.

Currently SARAO Deputy managing director: operations and business processes, Pontsho brings a wealth of leadership skills, strategic thinking, extensive stakeholder management experience and a passion for complex technology sectors. She has also served as Chairperson of the South African

Council for Space Affairs, the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites, and the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, amongst others. Congratulations to Pontsho on this appointment!


China publishes development report on participation in the SKA project

The SKA China Office has published a report on the development of China’s participation in the SKA Observatory, summarising the results of past work and outlining the direction for future work.

The report starts with an introduction on the Chinese government’s guiding principles for taking part in the project, which is followed by details of China’s participation in terms of scientific research, engineering, technology and talent development. The report also lists policies and measures for implementation.

Another important part of the report elaborates on the 10 objectives for scientific research for Chinese SKA scientists Two of these are key objectives and have already been supported by a dedicated national SKA programme in China, namely research on pulsars and the epoch of reionisation. The other eight objectives will be deployed over time.

The report identifies the development of high-calibre, innovative international researchers as an important element to realise China’s scientific objectives as a key member of the SKAO, and sets out plans to make special efforts to grow local science talent and to promote international exchanges.

The SKA China Office, as the management body of the dedicated national SKA programme, is based at the National Remote Sensing Centre of China, undertaking the daily work of inter-department coordination and organising China’s SKA participation.

ABOVE: The cover of the SKA China Office’s new report. RIGHT: China’s SKA science objectives are also highlighted on the new SKAO website.

Experts gather for exploratory workshop on SRC computing technology

In March, the SRC Working Groups organised the two-day Workshop on Native Cloud Computing and Software Defined Clusters at Instituto de Telecomunicações in Aveiro, Portugal. This followed a first meeting at INAF in Bologna in 2021 on HPC infrastructure.

The Aveiro workshop involved lively discussion and presentations that included views from academia, industry (including SMEs like StackHPC, ATLAR, Critical SW), global service providers like Amazon, Google, Microsoft Azure, equipment solution leaders like DDN, Dell, Nvidia and several others.

These meetings provide the technical background information to enable design decisions by the teams involved in the development of the SRC network around the globe. They enable discussion on the technical readiness of advanced solutions, technology roadmaps, and pave the ground for choosing the architecture features that are required for a federated SRC network.


Prototyping work for the SRC Network is now under way, with coordination from the SKAO bringing together around 50 experts based all over the world, working together in Agile teams. This effort, focused on prototyping the technologies needed to help SRCs work in federation, is being carried out under the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) as a new “Agile Release Train”, which enables packages of work to be delivered, tested and delivered incrementally.

An update from the team will be featured in the next issue of Contact!

UK announces major funding for SKA Regional Centre strategy

Recent progress towards developing the SKA Regional Centre Network was exemplified in the UK by the development of a strategy to design, deliver and support an SRC as part of the global network.

The UK Government, via the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has created an Open Call, worth £7.2 million, to initiate delivery of the strategy over the next three years. This will enable the UK science community to be fully prepared for the early phases of SKA operations, as well as benefiting existing science exploitation with SKA pathfinders and support the growth of the UK radio astronomy community.

“This allows the UK SKA community to create, in concert with its SKAO partners, both a cutting-edge research infrastructure and a vibrant research and innovation community, all driven and shaped by the radio astrophysics programme,” says Jeremy Yates, the national PI of the UK SKA Regional Centre.

A key component of the strategy is to engage and consult with scientists across the UK to ensure that the future UK SRC meets the needs of the community, building on and utilising existing expertise and leadership. As a result, a series of workshops have been run to determine UK science priorities and interests, identify the resources, tools and training that will be required to deliver a UK SRC, and develop plans for public engagement activities to inspire the future generations of scientists and engineers.

The SKA Regional Centres (SRCs) will store, process and provide access to the SKA telescopes’ data for astronomers around the globe, and work to establish this network of supercomputing centres is accelerating.

Let’s talk about... solar physics

Solar missions are very hot right now. In March, the ESANASA Solar Orbiter made its first near fly-bys, around 48 million km from the Sun, inside the orbit of Mercury. Equipped with multiple imaging instruments, it is creating the closest images ever of the Sun’s surface.

Only a few months earlier, NASA’s car-sized Parker Solar Probe flew through the Sun’s corona, its upper atmosphere, in another historic first. Subsequent fly-bys will take Parker even closer, ultimately getting to within 6.2 million km of the Sun’s surface, more than seven times closer than any other spacecraft has been before.

While these heat-defying space missions will bring a wealth of new information, they’ll be complemented by insights gleaned from radio astronomy observations, including those using the SKA telescopes.

One might imagine that there isn’t much light that still needs shedding on the Sun, given its relative closeness to Earth, but that is not the case.

“There are some topics which remain mysteries in solar physics even if we have understood the basics of the phenomena for several decades now,” says Dr Nicole Vilmer, a solar physics specialist based at Paris Observatory, and member of the SKAO’s Solar, Heliospheric and Ionospheric Physics Science Working Group. “To name a few: the generation of the solar magnetic field and the origin of the magnetic cycle, the formation and acceleration of the solar wind, and the production of energetic particles.”


The Sun has an 11-year cycle of activity, and at a certain point the magnetic field lines flip, meaning north becomes south and vice versa.

Before jumping into the finer details, let’s briefly slice into the Sun to understand its structure.

At the Sun’s core, the temperature is around 15 million degrees Celsius. Here nuclear fusion is taking place: protons travelling at great speed smash into each other and fuse together, a process which ultimately turns hydrogen into helium and releases energy in the form of gamma ray radiation.

The energy is then transported from the core to the Sun’s “surface”, the photosphere, through radiative and then convective transport.

The photosphere is the luminous layer, and it is so bright that it outshines the chromosphere above it, which can only be seen as a red glow during solar eclipses. Next is the thin transition region, and finally the tenuous solar corona, the Sun’s outermost atmosphere. Stretching around 8 million km into space, the corona is a region of diffuse plasma (hot ionised gas) only seen during a total solar eclipse as a bright halo around the dark Moon, or with specialised instruments.

The corona is of particular interest to radio astronomers for a simple reason.

“The tenuous solar corona is completely transparent at optical and higher frequencies, but the low radio frequency solar emission arises exactly from this magnetised and turbulent atmosphere of the Sun,” says Associate Prof. Divya Oberoi of India’s National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA), co-chair of the SKAO’s Solar, Heliospheric

Puzzlingly, despite being further away from the core than the photosphere, the corona is more than 200 times hotter. This is known as the “coronal heating problem”.

“This is among the most enduring astrophysics puzzles of our times: how does the 5,800K photosphere sustain a million K corona above it?” Divya says. “We have known about this mystery for more than 70 years, and have some pretty good ideas about how it might come about, but as a global community we have been struggling to find the evidence for this.”


Stellar temperature is measured in kelvin. Zero kelvin is absolute zero, or -273.15 degrees Celsius, the point at which particles stop moving. To convert a kelvin temperature to Celsius, simply subtract 273.15.

Scientists think the heat is coming from energy in the Sun’s magnetic fields, but the mechanism that transfers that energy to the corona and heats it up is unclear. Solar magnetic fields vary in strength, whereas the corona

10 CONTACT ISSUE 11 Let’s talk about
and Ionospheric Physics Science Working Group. ABOVE: The Sun as seen by the ESA-NASA Solar Orbiter in extreme ultraviolet light from a distance of roughly 75 million kilometres. It is the highest resolution image of the Sun’s full disc and outer atmosphere, the corona, ever taken. Credit: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/ EUI team; Data processing: E. Kraaikamp (ROB)

is searingly hot all over, all the time. This suggests that whatever is causing coronal heating must happen regularly all over the Sun, rather than intermittent expulsions of energy like dramatic solar flares.

One theory, first put forward in the late 1980s by the renowned American astrophysicist Prof. Eugene Parker (who died earlier this year, and for whom the Parker Solar Probe is named), is that socalled “nanoflares” are behind it.

“Prof. Parker proposed that the corona is maintained at its million K temperature by a very large number of extremely small explosive releases of energy in the corona – nanoflares – too weak to be detected individually but which can collectively deposit sufficient energy to heat the corona,” Divya explains.

“Efforts to detect the signatures of nanoflares have focused on X-ray and ultraviolet observations, but radio observations are very promising too. That’s because while X-ray and ultraviolet observations are usually dominated by thermal emissions, in the radio band we see signatures that arise from non-thermal, coherent emission processes.”

“Coherent” emission is concentrated in a few frequencies, while incoherent, thermal emission is spread out over a large bandwidth.

“The coherent nature of radio emission means that despite the low energy of the phenomenon which gives rise to them, the radio emissions can be much brighter. While this has been known for a while, these observations of radio signatures of nanoflares are very challenging and have simply

not been feasible with traditional radio telescopes. This contrasts with general solar radio bursts which have been studied in great detail with the earlier and present generations of instrumentation.”

Divya’s team has made promising progress on that front recently using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), a low-frequency SKA precursor telescope located in Western Australia. They detected tiny flashes of radio light coming from all over the Sun, even from “quiet Sun” areas where magnetic fields are the weakest. This is considered among the strongest evidence yet that nanoflares might be behind the coronal heating mystery.

The magnetism that is believed to drive coronal heating is also the cause of dramatic explosions. The twisting and realignment of magnetic field lines can cause sudden bursts of electromagnetic radiation known as solar flares, and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) which comprise large amounts of energetic plasma and associated magnetic fields.


Imagine a set of radio waves travelling through space. The wave form is known as the “phase”.

“Relative phase” is the difference between two waves’ points in that up/down cycle.

“Coherent” radio emission means the frequency of the emission is all the same, and the relative phase differences between any two waves of the emission is constant.

“Magnetic fields are now understood to be the driver of most solar phenomena,” Divya says. “They are however notoriously hard to measure and radio observations provide some of the most promising ways to estimate them. That’s because the magnetic fields permeating this turbulent region leave tiny imprints on these radio waves by changing their polarisation properties.”

Radio astronomers can measure this change in the received radio emissions and, in principle, estimate coronal magnetic fields.

“The Sun is not only a very interesting object to study by itself,” Nicole adds. “It is also crucial to understand its activity since it affects our terrestrial environment and may affect our technology through what we call space weather activities.”

Ah, space weather. A slightly innocuous term for something that can have dramatic consequences.

The Sun’s influence permeates through the Solar System via an enormous bubble of plasma called the heliosphere. This has a vital protective role, shielding our cosmic neighbourhood from the much stronger radiation of interstellar space, a region only NASA’s iconic Voyager probes have ventured into, recording the drastic change in environment that lies beyond. The heliosphere is fed by the solar wind, a constant stream of plasma from the corona.

“The processes by which energetic particles are transported from acceleration regions in the low corona to the heliosphere are still a subject of interest and are one of the key questions to be addressed by NASA-

LEFT: A coronal mass ejection on Feb. 27, 2000 taken by SOHO Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph Experiment (SOHO) C2 and C3 instruments. Credit: SOHO ESA & NASA.

ESA Solar Orbiter,” says Nicole. “The heliosphere is also the only place where remote sensing observations [analysing electromagnetic radiation] in a wide range going from radio to X-ray, can be combined with direct measurements, such as energetic particle measurements taken in space, to study plasma physics processes in a natural plasma, rather than plasma created in a laboratory.”

When the Sun has a violent outburst, like a CME, this can travel all the way to Earth. At their most harmless, the effects are seen as colourful and spectacular auroras that illuminate the northern and southern skies at high latitudes. But at the other extreme they can cause electrical black outs, disrupt radio and GPS communications and damage satellites. One of the most famous examples occurred in March 1989, when a huge coronal mass ejection led to a 12-hour electricity blackout across the whole Canadian province of Quebec.

“Only a few of the CMEs are ‘geoeffective’ and currently we have a very limited ability to reliably predict which ones will impact us adversely. The most crucial parameter to measure for is the direction and strength of the CME magnetic field,” Divya explains.

“Currently our most reliable measurements come from satellitebased instrumentation located about 1.5 million km from Earth along the SunEarth line, which gives us less than an hour’s notice before the more energetic CMEs impact our environment. We are working towards improving this by using radio telescopes to measure how the magnetised plasma of CMEs changes the observed polarisation of background radiation (a process called Faraday rotation) while it is still halfway between the Sun and the Earth, which could increase our advance warning time to about a day.”

While radio telescopes can be powerful instruments for solar studies, this type of science faces some unique challenges,

not least because the Sun is enormous and extremely active.

The Sun’s apparent size in the sky (known as “angular size”) is even bigger when observing in radio than in visible light, close to 1 degree across if observing in the lowest frequencies covered by the SKA-Low telescope, Divya explains. That’s around double the size of the Moon in the sky.

“It also has elaborate structures spanning a large range of angular scales, and the solar radio emission can be extremely variable, so the usual tricks of observing a source for long durations or across wider bands to improve imaging quality are simply not useful for the Sun. To add further complications, multiple different emission mechanisms often operate simultaneously on the Sun and emission strengths can easily vary by more than nine orders of magnitude between them.”

This all demands a special approach not usually used to observe other objects. To explain it, we need to get a bit technical. Over to Divya.

“Some of the most interesting information, both from space weather and coronal heating perspectives, is buried in the comparatively weaker emissions or features. So to meet the science needs, one requires images with very high fidelity (meaning no information is missing and no errors have been introduced) and dynamic range (which improves the contrast between different types of emission happening at the same time). If you have these things, you can reliably detect and characterise faint emission features even in presence of those a million times stronger.”

The method radio astronomers will use is called “high fidelity and dynamic range spectropolarimetric snapshot imaging”. Quite a mouthful, but in simple terms it means making independent radio images of every tiny slice of the frequency channel being observed for

every time slice in the data. In many other areas of radio astronomy an average is used instead, because most objects aren’t as variable as the Sun on these scales, nor as bright – in fact it’s this brightness that enables scientists to divide up the observations so finely, as even these fine slivers of solar signal outshine the noise that can obscure fainter sources. This technique is already paying dividends using other telescopes, and the SKA will be able to do it on a grander scale.

“The SKA telescopes are uniquely suited for solar science and will enable us to make solar radio images of unprecedented quality. What makes the telescopes exceptional is the large number of elements in the arrays, much larger than any other earlier instrument. This ability to gather an unprecedentedly large amount of information about the solar radio emission will give the SKA telescopes their cutting edge,” Divya says.

As the Sun emits across such a wide part of the spectrum, SKA observations in the radio band can also provide a fuller picture when combined with those from other facilities, particularly those in space.

“If the SKA provides regular solar observations in a manner that can be easily used by solar physicists (not necessarily radio astronomers), it will provide complementary observations, for example of flares, which can be combined with X-ray or extreme ultraviolet observations provided by the Solar Orbiter or other solar space probes,” Nicole adds. “The radio observations can also be combined with coronagraph observations on space probes to explore the early development of CMEs.”

Then, of course, there are the breakthroughs that we cannot anticipate. “We must not forget that every time we make observations finer than have been possible with earlier generations of instrumentation we have always found unexpected discoveries and phenomenon,” Divya adds. “So we very much expect this trend to very much continue with the SKA telescopes as well.”

“The SKA telescopes are uniquely suited for solar science and will enable us to make solar radio images of unprecedented quality.”
A coronal mass ejection (CME) travelling at 900 miles per second in August 2012, which caused aurora to appear in our skies a few days later. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

Science communication in practice

In July the SKAO hosted the fourth edition of the Public Awareness of Research Infrastructures conference at the Observatory’s Global Headquarters in the UK.

Organised on behalf of The Association of European-Level Research Infrastructures Facilities, the PARI conference brings together practitioners involved in research facilities’ communications activities to discuss the issues they face in their work. These include how to build and engage with diverse communities, the role played by research infrastructures in science diplomacy, promoting greater equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM fields through outreach activities, public relations practice, etc.

The event has traditionally been European in scope, but the SKAO’s footprint attracted a global audience, including strong representation from Australia and South Africa. In total, some 142 participants (including 60 in-person) representing 24 nationalities attended, giving the discussions a decidedly international scope, with experiences and different perspectives shared from almost every continent.

Close to 60 talks were given over the three days from more than three dozen organisations, including four intergovernmental organisations: the SKAO, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), and CERN.

The conference focused around several pillars of modern communication activities – public relations practice, unconventional outreach, the role of communications and outreach in promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM fields, and the wider impact of research infrastructures in society.

The event was a real success, and provided an excellent platform for professional communications teams and science communicators to exchange best practices and lessons learned in communicating the work of research infrastructures with their peers.

14 CONTACT ISSUE 11 Featured image

Prof. Philip Diamond reappointed to head up SKAO

As construction of the SKA telescopes picks up steam, a firm and experienced hand will continue steering the work.

The SKA Observatory Council has reappointed Prof. Philip Diamond as leader of the organisation. His new contract will run until 1 July 2025.

“I am honoured that the SKAO Council have granted me another term in office,” says Prof. Diamond. “I believe it reflects their comfort with the status and direction of the Observatory which is, of course, a direct result of the staff of SKAO and our partners, who are all working hard to make it a success.”

Under Prof. Diamond’s leadership, international engineering consortia developed and delivered the SKA telescopes’ design, several new countries joined up, and the project’s Global Headquarters was formally selected. The SKAO furthermore transitioned into an intergovernmental organisation and the

Council last year approved construction of the SKA telescopes, with SKAO teams rapidly growing in Australia and South Africa.

Prof. Diamond, who holds a PhD in radio astronomy from The University of Manchester, has been a staunch supporter of the SKA project since it was first broached in the early 1990s. He joined the then SKA Organisation in October 2012. Before that, Prof. Diamond worked at radio astronomy facilities in Sweden, Germany, the United States, and Australia – notching up over 300 journal articles.

“My goal for the next few years is to ensure that construction proceeds as planned and that we see first light – or first fringes as we radio astronomers call it – from SKA dishes and antennas as rapidly as possible,” he says.

Prof. Philip Diamond at the Urania Observatory in Zürich, Switzerland.
SKAO Corner
Credit: Keystone/Severin Bigler

New Science Data Challenge hones hunt for hydrogen

Astronomers from around the world will start sifting for the hydrogen-21cm signal in an enormous mock dataset come October 2022.

The SKAO’s third Science Data Challenge (SDC3) reflects the SKA project’s initial driver – to read the history of the Universe as written in the language of hydrogen. The goal of the series of challenges is to prepare scientists for the actual SKA telescopes’ data to come in a few years.

The challenges are steadily growing in complexity and participation. While SDC1 attracted nine teams, SDC2’s count quadrupled to 40 teams and featured a dataset 300 times larger – far too colossal for any ordinary computer to handle.

The first two challenges tested participants’ methods to separate galaxies from noise. SDC3 will centre on simulated observations from the future SKA-Low telescope.

“Participating teams will be expected to extract the hydrogen21cm signal from our dataset,” SKAO postdoctoral fellow Dr Simon Purser explained. “This is no mean feat. Not only is the signal extremely faint, but it is heavily obscured by both galactic and extragalactic sources of emission.”

Due to the complexity of these observations, the SKAO has

split the challenge into two independent parts:

• Foregrounds (SDC3a) running until March 2023, and

• Inference (SDC3b), which will start shortly afterwards.

As part of the first phase, teams will need to accurately subtract sources of foreground contamination from the simulated hydrogen-21cm signal. The inference challenge will then focus on extracting key information about the early universe from the signal. This includes studying the first stars, galaxies and black holes.

Once more, several international high-performance computing facilities around the world have generously donated processing time to participants. For this reason, teams will need to submit a brief proposal that outlines the approach they plan to take when registering. This will help the SKAO to effectively allocate supercomputer time.

Find the registration link and more information on the SDC3 website

BELOW: A frequency snapshot from the dataset that will be used in the SKAO’s third Science Data Challenge. Areas of hydrogen absorption and emission are shown in dark and light, respectively.

Richard Schilizzi

In August, SKAO HQ welcomed former SKA Director Richard Schilizzi, Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics at The University of Manchester and the lead author of a forthcoming book on the history of the project.

Welcome back to the HQ, Richard! Tell us about the meeting you’ve been holding.

I’ve been here for a writers’ week for the SKA history book. This covers the period from 1993 when the International Union of Radio Science created a Large Telescope Working Group, to 2012 when the telescope site decision was made, just after my tenure as director ended. We’re working towards submitting the book later this year for publication next year by Springer Nature as part of their series of books on Historical and Cultural Astronomy.

What’s the scope of the book?

It’s a narrative of what happened and what went on behind the scenes to set up decisions, but also our reflections on why things happened. Many people know parts of the story, and those who have read draft chapters have said how much comes back to them which they had forgotten. I often say human memory is a leaky storage device; it is amazing what people remember and don’t remember!

So it’s the first time all this history has been written down in one place.

Yes, and it really makes you realise just how complex the project is because it’s global. There were many nations involved, different funding cycles, different working cultures, and many national activities feeding into the overall picture. That’s what we try to draw together in the 500 pages of the book. I’ve always thought there should be a volume two for the pre-construction and construction phase, exploring the different problems that came up and how they were tackled. That would be a good project for [SKAO Director-General] Phil Diamond when he retires!

What do you think when you see how far the project has come now?

It’s a fantastic achievement. To see what started off all those decades ago turn into the SKA Observatory, a treaty organisation like CERN, ESA and ESO, is just brilliant. And now of course construction has started. The telescope design we foresaw a decade or more ago is pretty much what is being built.

We know it’s going to do amazing things; we can see that already happening in the precursors and pathfinders, and the SKA is bigger and will do even more transformational work. We also know from history that a large fraction of what the telescope becomes known for is not written down in the science case –that’s the discovery of the unknown.

* “The Square Kilometre Array: a Science Mega-Project in the Making, 1993-2012” by Richard Schilizzi, Ron Ekers, Phil Crosby, and Peter Dewdney will be published in 2023.

Progress on show at first SKA telescopes status meetings

The first Annual Status Update Meetings for the SKA-Low and SKA-Mid telescopes were held in February and May 2022 respectively, providing an overview of progress for a broad target audience ranging from external stakeholders (such as the SKAO’s Science and Engineering Advisory committee) to the internal telescope teams. The meetings spanned two days each and were attended by up to 150 participants spread between the SKAO HQ Council Chamber and those connecting remotely via Zoom.

The meetings covered the period looking back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and ahead to AA0.5 (the first deployment of Mid dishes and Low antennas planned to start in mid-2023) and beyond.

Speakers were invited from across many of the key business areas, in order to help to drive alignment among the telescope teams and also contributing partners. Updates and forecasts were provided by teams across the SKAO, including Science, the Telescope Delivery Teams, Operations, the Product Delivery Teams, Software, assurance procurement support and business enabling teams.

“We will be holding these meetings annually to give everyone a clear view of where things stand for both SKA telescopes as we progress through construction,” says SKA-Mid Senior Project Manager Ben Lewis. “There’s real value to getting everyone in one room – whether real or virtual – to ask questions, hash out any issues, and also to understand the great progress that’s being made, which is sometimes harder to see for individuals or teams.”

The next editions of the telescope update meetings will likely take place in Q2 2023.

2 minutes with... Prof.
BELOW: The SKA-Mid annual status meeting (pictured) in May followed the SKA-Low meeting in February.

Growth of SKAO teams in Australia and South Africa gathers pace

The SKAO teams “in-country” are rapidly expanding, as construction activities continue to escalate in both Australia and South Africa.

South Africa

New employees are coming on board almost every month in South Africa; the 22 new hires so far this year include specialists in administration, assembly, integration and verification (AIV), IT, construction, communication, legal, finance and a variety of engineering portfolios. Pushing towards the ultimate goal of ~140 employees in the South Africa offices, progress is steady and positive.

The office in Cape Town is in the process of being established and will be ready in October 2022, with staff occupying interim office space until then. This will be the home of the SKA-Mid team for the next five years, until a permanent building is constructed and occupied in 2027.


In Australia, 23 staff are now employed across the Perth interim Science Operations Centre (iSOC) and the Geraldton interim Engineering Operations Centre (iEOC). Many key roles have been filled, including all those in the SKA-Low Australia executive team, with the heads of science operations, software and computing, and engineering operations now in place.

Both the iSOC and iEOC facilities have had furniture, branding and signage installed. In Perth, the iSOC is co-located in the CSIRO building , with a permanent home to be developed over the next few years. The EOC team has recently moved into their own building in Geraldton, which will be their base for the next five years, while a permanent EOC is built. The sITF (system Integration Testing Facility) team is currently

preparing for the installation of electronics labs into the EOC, which will be instrumental in early integration and verification of SKA-Low telescope products, as well as a reverberation chamber for radio frequency interference (RFI) testing.

Travel between SKAO sites resumes

The relaxation of international travel restrictions across most countries this year has allowed visits between SKAO sites to increase.

In May and June, SKAO Director-General Prof. Phillip Diamond toured both telescope host countries – his first trip to Australia or South Africa since before the COVID-19 pandemic – providing a great opportunity to meet the teams in person as well as engaging with key partners in those countries, including government officials, diplomats, etc. In recent months, the teams in Australia and South Africa have also hosted other SKAO senior leaders, SKA-Mid and SKA-Low project teams, and have held high-level talks with government representatives and executives from collaborating organisations as part of the formal establishment of our intergovernmental organisation in the telescope host countries.

The easing of travel restrictions has enabled colleagues based in the telescope host countries to visit SKAO Global HQ in the UK, too. Although limited to business-critical missions, these in-person meetings and planning sessions taking place across the SKAO sites are invaluable to further cement relationships and share knowledge between colleagues, and such interactions will continue to be vital as construction and operations activities increase.

BELOW: Prof. Diamond meeting ambassadors to South Africa during his trip. BELOW: Prof. Phil Diamond visiting the SKA-Low building in Australia.

SKAO launches a brand new website

The SKA Observatory’s new website was officially unveiled by the chair of the SKAO Council, Dr Catherine Cesarsky, at the Council’s mid-year meeting in July 2022.

The new SKAO website is the result of over a year of development capturing more than 100 people’s input. Built by Dutch digital agency Betawerk, the website matches the visionary concept of the new SKAO brand as well as the Observatory’s ambition and status as an intergovernmental organisation.

“Developing the new SKAO website has been no easy feat,” said Joseph Diamond, communications and outreach officer and lead for the website project. “We had countless meetings with most parts of the observatory to refine requirements, then developed and checked content, commissioned visuals, fixed bugs, and liaised with the wider SKAO network to ensure that the website would cater to our members and international audience.”

Betawerk received the website contract following a competitive international procurement process.

“We are very excited about the new website!” said Betawerk director, Martijn Hermans. “We felt it was our mission to deliver an online platform which inspires and engages people worldwide. It was great to work with the tremendous dedicated SKAO team and we are thankful for the contribution we were able to make to this extraordinary endeavour.”

The SKAO and Betawerk team emphasised accessibility to all, including catering to visitors with low bandwidth connections. The new website only provides a taste of what is to come, though! Expect more functionality and content, including animations, videos, and translations into 12 languages used in the SKAO’s member and prospective member countries.

BELOW: The brand new SKAO website was launched in July 2022.

Pulsars Science Working Group

SKA Science Working Groups highlight their research goals

A new set of science banners has been produced to highlight the key goals of the SKA’s Science Working Groups (SWGs), complemented by stunning images and data from recent studies in each field.

At present there are 14 SWGs with over 1,000 members from 42 countries, covering all the major SKA science themes. They are a valuable part of Team SKA, providing input into areas of design and operations that are likely to affect the Observatory’s scientific capability and productivity.

To promote their scientific interests to the broader community, each SWG has a 2m-tall banner showcasing their plans for using the SKA telescopes. These were originally produced in 2019, with the expert graphic design assistance of Joe

Diamond in the SKAO Communications team. The refresh has provided an opportunity to include new images and text, as well as applying the SKAO’s new branding to the banners.

Visitors to SKAO Global HQ will spot them located around the building, and they will also shortly be available to download from the individual SWG web pages on the new SKAO website

If you would like a digital copy in the meantime, send a request to

21 SEPTEMBER 2022 CONTACT The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a global enterprise to build the largest scientific instrument on Earth, both in physical scale and in terms of the volume of data it will generate. Consisting of two telescope arrays located respectively in Australia and South Africa and managed from the SKA Organisation headquarters in the UK, the SKA promises to revolutionise our understanding of the universe. The science case for the SKA has the potential to appeal to users well beyond the radio astronomy community, spanning across a wide range of areas of physics, cosmology and astrophysics. Science working groups (SWGs) and Focus Groups (FGs) covering all these areas have been set up to further evolve the SKA science case, providing a conduit for interaction between the SKA Organisation science team and the astronomical community. This banner provides a summary of the Pulsars Science Working Group. The SKA Science Working Group on Fundamental Physics with Pulsars aims to ensure that the SKA will address some of the major unsolved problems of modern physics by tackling fundamental questions in ways that cannot be matched by any other experiment: Is General Relativity the ultimate theory of gravitation and, if not, what theory will replace it? What is the equation of state of matter beyond nuclear densities? How do super-massive black hole binary systems merge? Designed for Pulsar Astrophysics To address all of the above questions requires significant increases in both the number of discovered pulsars and the precision with which they are studied. Therefore, the SKA has been designed to undertake an ambitious pulsar survey of unprecedented scale and to regularly observe an array of pulsars with unsurpassed fidelity. By exploiting the latest advances in multiprocessor technologies, the SKA will achieve the enormous computational task of searching for highly relativistic pulsars over a large volume of the Galaxy in real-time. The remaining technical challenges revolve around semi-autonomous operation of the survey, including schedule optimization, differentiating the pulsar needles from the overwhelming radio frequency interference haystack, and optimally searching orbital parameter space to produce phase-connected timing solutions for confirmed binary pulsar dis Gravitational Waves By regularly observing an array of millisecond pulsars, the SKA will be transformed into an unique observatory for low-frequency (nanohertz) gravitational waves, such as the stochastic background generated by the cosmic merger history of supermassive black hole binary systems. Depending on the strength of the stochastic background, the SKA may be able to characterize the shape of the strain spectrum and tell us about how supermassive black holes merge and galaxies evolve. The SKA may also enable studies of cosmic structure imprinted on anisotropies in the background and unique tests of gravitational theories in the radiative regime by investigating the polarization states of gravitational waves. Pulsar Timing Arrays complement Earth- and space-based detectors. Image credit: Moore et al. Class. Quantum. Grav 32, 015014 (2015). Strong-field Tests of Gravity The SKA will discover new pulsars in highly relativistic binary systems that will yield unprecedented tests of gravity in the strong field regime, including tests of fundamental principles such as the strong equivalence principle, the existence of gravitational dipole radiation or extra field components. The discoveries will likely include at least one pulsar in orbit around a black hole, providing the ultimate laboratory for exploring and studying the physics of black holes, their space-time metrics and the no-hair theorem. Such observations would likely provide critical pointers toward a quantum theory of gravitation. Artistic depiction of pulsar in orbit around a black hole Image credit: SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions Dense Matter Equation of State Neutron stars provide unique laboratories to study the physics of matter at densities greater than that of atomic nuclei. The SKA will yield an order of magnitude increase in the number of neutron star mass determinations and high-energy observations can determine their radii. Valuable independent estimates of radii will also be determined by measuring moments of inertia of the most relativistic binary systems. Such constraints on the massradius relationship of neutron stars, especially those provided by the fastest spinning and highest mass pulsars, directly constrain the equation of state of cold dense matter. Furthermore, the SKA will improve our understanding of neutron superfluidity by enabling detailed study of rotational irregularities in a wide range of pulsars. The Sun is a surprisingly hard radio source to study it has structures spanning a large emissions from different mechanisms differs between them by many orders of magnitude; very rapid time and frequency scales. Radio observations of the Sun carry treasure trove fields and coronal processes not accessible by any other means. The capabilities of the solar radio science. Coronal heating The solar corona is at the temperature of a few million K, while the photosphere is only principles of thermodynamics has been known since early 1940s and is known as the coronal and imaging fidelity, the SKA will explore the role and efficacy of both the leading contenders wave based heating mechanisms. Turbulence and radio wave scattering Though much of the radio emission from the active Sun is born deep inside the corona, it is heavily distorted and smeared as it propagates out of the very inhomogeneous and turbulent solar corona. On the one hand, makes it challenging to disentangle the properties of the source of propagation effects, but on the other hand, it also provides very useful probe of this otherwise very hard to study medium. SKA’s snapshot spectroscopic imaging capability will help us dis-entangle the propagation effects from intrinsic variations in the properties of radio sources. Coronal Though it for the bulk in the except the only quantitative drivers of very hard, contributions Solar explosions and solar energetic particles Much of the time, the Sun shines steadily, as is our usual experience with the visible Sun, but occasionally it is home to extremely energetic burst-like phenomenon. These explosions, called flares, take place in the atmosphere of the Sun, Corona, and are usually associated with expulsions of large amounts of energetic plasma and accompanying magnetic field called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). These explosions are powered by the energy stored in the solar magnetic fields, and unleash a large range of exciting and dramatic phenomena seen as intense emissions spanning all the way from X-rays to low radio frequencies. These CMEs carry the solar influence to terrestrial neighbourhood and can have significant impacts on the Earth, which we now know as Space Weather. Space Weather The CMEs are the carriers of Space to the Earth. Their include benign and phenomenon like and southern lights more serious ones supply blackouts, damage, and disruption radio communications, Over the last decade, the Sun-Earth connection become key issue research and is of societal relevance. SKA and Solar and Heliospheric Science The SKA will provide the highest fidelity radio images of the Sun with very high time and frequency resolution exactly what is needed to simultaneously track the details of solar emission across time, frequency and morphology. The SKA will be able to image the tenuous solar corona and the weak radio emission from the CMEs in unprecedented detail and out to large distances in the heliosphere making remarkable new contributions to Space Weather studies, potentially enabling prediction of Space Weather events. SKA precursor instruments are deeply engaged in pursuing solar and heliospheric physics to pave the way for SKA science. Solar and Heliospheric Science Working Group Image credit: Sijie Yu Eduard Kontar, NASA/SDO, LOFAR, Glasgow University

Software for telescopes surges ahead

Awarding 41 contracts worth approximately €151.7 million, the SKA Observatory (SKAO) has leaped out of the blocks since the approval of construction just over a year ago.

Among others, the SKAO’s tender subcommittee most recently endorsed the first part of the management and integration of the SKA-Low telescope’s field stations (€1 million) as well as both telescopes’ synchronisation and timing activity management (€1.5 million). Major contracts for the manufacturing of the SKA antennas and dishes should be awarded soon.

Software procurement received the bulk of the contracts (23) and money (nearly €100 million) committed so far. Under these contracts, at least 130 software developers from nine countries are working to ensure the SKA telescopes deliver world-class science.

The SKAO recently signed its two final software contracts with India’s National Centre for Radio Astrophysics and Swiss company Cosylab. Their developers join those from the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, Italy, China, and the United Kingdom working on the project.

“Concluding the contracting of all our software suppliers is a big moment, but at the same time, it is only an intermediate step to the ultimate goal,” says the SKAO’s

software project manager, Maurizio Miccolis.

This goal is to enable the SKAO community to achieve transformational science. The software’s first significant trial awaits in 2024 when four telescope dishes and six low-frequency antenna stations are due to come online. By then, the software must demonstrate a basic ability to control the telescopes, including the capacity to combine signals from several antennas.

When construction concludes at the end of the decade, each telescope’s software must process an average of 8 terabits of data per second before distributing it to science users worldwide.

Populated by trains & planets

Though the SKAO finalised its software procurement in a speedy nine months, the groundwork for it was laid years ago. From 2013-4, two different international consortia steered the design of the SKA software as part of the telescopes’ pre-construction phase. One consortium – consisting of members from seven countries led by India – designed the Telescope Manager element. The other consortium brought together almost 40 institutions from 11 countries to plan the Science Data Processor, with the United Kingdom in charge.

The consortia passed their critical design reviews in April 2018 and May 2019, respectively. The Observatory then started planning for construction by prototyping software development processes.

“We realised that we didn’t want to maintain the separate consortia but merge efforts to build the software in a

single organic way,” explains Nick Rees, head of computing and software at the SKAO.

The software leadership adopted a tailored version of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). The framework is a set of workflow patterns widely used in industry.

In September 2018, the SKAO started implementing SAFe processes with four development teams. Labelled PI0 (Programme Increment Zero), more teams joined with each following PI, including ones from other design consortia with software responsibilities.

Eventually, two Agile Release Trains –team-of-teams made up of three to nine people each – emerged: one for Science Data Handling and Processing (SDH&P) and the other for Observation, Monitoring, and Control (OMC). Later, a Services train was added.

The Services train consists of enablers that carry out activities in support of the other trains’ work, such as setting up the software repository and testing system. Team Planet (an amalgamation of “platform” and “network”) is an enabler that provides the hardware, platforms, as well as the networks that connect them.

The SAFe way of working is inherently flexible.

“Three trains may not be our configuration forever,” says Rees. “In future, we may transform them into two trains, one dedicated to each telescope. Currently, this is unnecessary as both telescopes require most of the software under development.”

Working as trusted partners

Along with the SAFe methodology, relational contracts form the backbone of the SKAO’s software development. The Observatory uses the fourth version of a suite of standard contracts called New Engineering Contracts 4, or NEC4. These aim to reduce the complexity and

22 CONTACT ISSUE 11 Focus on

time involved in managing contracts.

“By using the NEC4 suite, we set up contracts in a mutually beneficial way, rather than as a mere exchange of goods and services between parties,” says Miccolis.

Software leadership found that combining an NEC4 framework contract and professional services short contract best suited the SKAO’s needs for flexibility. To further ensure the parties work as trusted partners, the Observatory follows the Vested methodology of relational contracting (see box) developed by academics in the United States.

How it works is that each contract includes a shared vision developed with all the suppliers. The agreement further stipulates the guiding principles (such as reciprocity and honesty), intended behaviours (inclusion and respect, for instance), high-level objectives, and the expected rules of engagement – but not the exact tasks or deliverables required.

Miccolis explains that the SKAO software engineering team could have spent years defining what precisely each supplier had to deliver. Instead, they contract skilled developers and ask them to use their expertise and creativity to help provide an even better solution. However, the responsibility for delivering the final product stays with the SKAO software engineering team.

“What we ask for from suppliers is a set of experts, and then the SKAO steers this workforce to develop the software product we have to deliver,” says Miccolis.

“Skilled workers are motivated by stimulating work. You don’t need to police their work – on the contrary; you can leverage their skills and positive attitude. We don’t want working for the SKAO to be just a job, but a chance to do something fun, interesting, and challenging for an important project.”

Also read: Construction activities progress with further contracts and site visits

Credits: Characteristic of the SKAO’s Programme Increment (PI) planning meetings, these doodles by software engineer Snehal Valame (pictured on the left) illustrate key SAFe concepts, such as the fruits of quality and onboarding teams on Agile Release Trains (top right and middle).


Results from a recent survey reveal that SKAO’s approach to software contracting is bearing fruit.

Academics from the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, USA, quizzed key personnel at the SKAO and its suppliers. They based the survey on the Vested methodology, endorsed by SKAO and its software suppliers, which focuses on five elements that indicate compatibility and trust in a trading relationship: trust, innovation, communication, team orientation, and focus.

The Vested faculty asked the SKAO and its suppliers to rank statements about the five elements on a scale. Participants assessed themselves as well as their counterparts. The results showed minor differences in the SKAO’s self-view and the partners’ perception of the SKAO and vice versa, signifying a promising level of compatibility and trust. Such results are “indicative of a healthy relationship”, Vested reported.

Open-ended questions in the survey’s final section elicited comments such as: “The relationship we have with SKAO is much better than any other clientsupplier relationship we had before”.

The results “show organisations such as ours can achieve a relational way of working”, said the SKAO’s project manager for software, Maurizio Miccolis. “The results are especially encouraging given it was the first assessment and that the relationship is still in its early days.”

The Observatory expects to repeat the survey once a year, said Miccolis. “We want to keep investing in the health of the relationship with our suppliers.”


World map of SKA precursors and pathfinders

24 CONTACT ISSUE 11 Pathfinders SKAO Partnership - includes SKAO Member States* and SKAO Observers (as * * * * * *

APERture Tile In Focus (APERTIF) –the Netherlands

Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) - Canada

enhanced Multi Element Remotely Linked Interferometer Network (e-MERLIN)United Kingdom

Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) - China

Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA) – South Africa

MeerKAT – South Africa

NenuFAR - France

VLBI Exploration of Radio Astrometry (VERA) - Japan

Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) - Australia

Effelsberg 100m Radio TelescopeGermany

European VLBI Network (EVN) - Europe

Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) - India

Low Frequency Array (LOFAR)the Netherlands

Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) - Australia

Parkes - Australia

African Partner Countries

* *
June 2022)
SKA precursor and pathfinder facilities are dotted around the world across the SKAO partnership and are proving to be a first-class testbed for our science community.

Local impact study of HERA shows direct benefits of radio astronomy infrastructure

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) has released a local impact study looking at the benefits for local communities stemming from the hosting of the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA)* – an SKA precursor facility – in the country.

Construction of HERA began in 2015, with the full array reaching completion in 2021. SARAO managed the construction of the infrastructure in close collaboration with US institutions.

The aim of the HERA impact study undertaken by SARAO was to understand the direct investment and benefits of cohosted radio astronomy infrastructure to the local economy in South Africa, at both the national and provincial level.

The report’s findings indicate that South Africa received substantial direct foreign investment for construction of the infrastructure to the sum of more than R41.5 million (€2.4m) for the period 2013-2021, comprising R38 million from the US and R3.5 million from the UK. South Africa contributed over R32 million to HERA and associated activities in that period, including human capital development in the form of postgraduate scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships. Most

of the investment towards infrastructure was made to the Northern Cape, with materials sourced from local suppliers during construction of the infrastructure, demonstrating the value of hosting such infrastructure for local businesses.

At a regional level, it was found that Carnarvon benefited most from the investment. In terms of employment, over the course of seven years, the construction of HERA created employment for 24 individuals who were mostly recruited from the town.

“The impact study shows how South Africa can benefit from smaller scale, co-hosted instrumentation through business development to the employment it can create for people living in some of the most impoverished and rural geographical areas in the country,” explained Dr Bonita de Swardt, SARAO Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for Human Capital Development (HCD) and author of the report.

On a national level, the impact study found growing participation of South African researchers in the HERA collaboration, mainly as a result of continuous financial support towards further education. This support led to increased participation of researchers based at local universities in the collaboration, ensuring South Africa’s representation in world-class research conducted with this instrument.

*HERA is an array of 350 antennas situated next to the MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape province. It is a US-led project that forms part of a large international collaboration representative of institutions from Europe, South Africa, the UK and US. The goal of HERA is to observe how the first structures formed in the very early stages of the Universe, as the first stars and galaxies lit up space. The instrument is now undergoing commissioning and validation of its data.

BELOW: Part of the team of local artisans from the town of Carnarvon who helped build the HERA telescope, situated next to MeerKAT in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Credit: Scott Dynes.

Promising beginnings for Australia’s newest supercomputer

Australia’s newest supercomputer, Setonix, has produced a highly detailed image of a supernova remnant immediately after the computing system’s first stage was made available to researchers.

Data used to create the image was collected with the ASKAP radio telescope, an SKA precursor owned and operated by Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, on Wajarri Yamatji Country in Western Australia. That data was then transferred to the Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre in Perth, where Setonix is located, via high-speed optical fibre.

Within 24 hours of accessing the first stage of Pawsey’s new Setonix system, CSIRO’s ASKAP science data processing team began integrating their processing pipeline into the new system.

Setonix (named after the quokka - Setonix brachyurus - a beloved small marsupial native to Western Australia) is the key part of a AU$70 million capital upgrade of the Pawsey Centre.

The new supercomputer is being installed in two stages. The first stage is underway, and the second stage is expected to be completed later this year.

Dr Pascal Elahi, Pawsey’s supercomputing applications specialist, said deploying this first phase of Setonix has increased the computing power of the Pawsey Centre by 45%.

“Processing data from ASKAP’s astronomy surveys is a great way to stress-test the Setonix system and see what is possible,” Dr Elahi said.

While Setonix is ramping up to full operations, so is ASKAP, which is currently wrapping up a series of pilot surveys and will soon undertake even larger and deeper surveys of the sky. Setonix will be used to process the data collected by ASKAP.

Dr Wasim Raja, a researcher on CSIRO’s ASKAP team, said the supernova remnant’s dataset was selected to test the processing software on Setonix, given the challenges involved in imaging such a complex object.

“Setonix’s large, shared memory will allow us to use more of our software features and further enhance the quality of our images. This means we will be able to unearth more from the ASKAP data,” Dr Raja said.

When fully operational, Setonix will be up to 30 times more powerful than Pawsey’s earlier Galaxy and Magnus systems combined. This will allow for more processing of the vast amounts of data coming in from many projects, and more science will be achieved in a fraction of the time.


SKA precursor telescopes don ‘sunglasses’ to find brightest ever pulsar

An international research team has used a new observation technique to discover the brightest extragalactic pulsar known, and it could even be the most luminous one ever found. The findings have been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

A pulsar is a rapidly rotating neutron star – a remnant of a dead star - that emits two beams of circularly polarised radio light. As the beams flash across space they create a unique timing and polarisation signature. Around 3,000 pulsars have been detected inside our galaxy, while those in neighbouring galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud and Small Magellanic Cloud, only number around 30. This may be because they have fewer pulsars, being smaller dwarf galaxies compared to our own, but most pulsars would also be too faint for our telescopes to detect at that distance (around 200,000 light years away).

Traditional methods of finding pulsars look for the flickering time signature in telescope data but can miss those that are too fast or too slow.

The research team instead applied a new method of seeking out pulsars to CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope. By using the astronomical version of “sunglasses” to capture light that is polarised, they spotted an intriguing light source in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Follow-up observations by SARAO’s MeerKAT telescope in South Africa confirmed that researchers had

BELOW: A section of the Large Magellanic Cloud, captured under normal conditions by SARAO’s MeerKAT radio telescope. It is detecting all radio light, and the pulsar looks like just another source of radio light. Credit: Yuanming Wang

found a never-before-seen pulsar that is 10 times brighter than any other detected outside our galaxy.

Collecting circularly polarised light is a highly specialised capability, which only a few of the world’s telescopes have the capacity to achieve. ASKAP and MeerKAT’s sophisticated engineering enables them to observe light that is linear or circularly polarised. By looking for light that is circularly polarised, pulsars outside the standard timing range can be found. The collaboration capitalised on the telescopes’ unique capabilities, namely ASKAP’s high survey speed and MeerKAT’s high resolution. ASKAP can scan large swathes of sky in this mode and then researchers, noticing anything unusual, can set MeerKAT to have a closer look.

With this team effort, new discoveries are being made. Before now, the bright spot in the radio data was overlooked as a distant galaxy.

CSIRO acknowledges the Wajarri Yamatji as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site where ASKAP is located.

BELOW: The polarised light from a section of the Large Magellanic Cloud, as captured by SARAO’s MeerKAT radio telescope. In this field, MeerKAT was looking for sources that produced light that is circularly polarised. Very few objects in the sky produce this type of polarised light – pulsars being one of them. Credit: Yuanming Wang


Astronomers detect galactic space laser

A powerful radio-wave laser, called a “megamaser”, has been observed by the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa.

The record-breaking find is the most distant megamaser of its kind ever detected, at about five billion light-years from Earth.

The light from the megamaser has travelled 58 thousand billion billion (58 followed by 21 zeros) kilometres to Earth.

The discovery was made by an international team of astronomers led by Dr Marcin Glowacki, who previously worked at the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy and the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. The paper has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available as a preprint

Dr Glowacki, who is now based at the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Western Australia, said megamasers are usually created when two galaxies violently collide in the Universe.

“When galaxies collide, the gas they contain becomes extremely dense and can trigger concentrated beams of light to shoot out,” he said. “This is the first hydroxyl megamaser of its kind to be observed by MeerKAT and the most distant seen by any telescope to date. It’s impressive that, with just a single night of observations, we’ve already found a record-breaking megamaser. It shows just how good the telescope is.”

The record-breaking object was named “Nkalakatha” [pronounced ng-kuh-la-kuh-tah] – an isiZulu word meaning “big boss”.

Dr Glowacki said the megamaser was detected on the first night of a survey involving more than 3,000 hours of observations by the MeerKAT telescope.

The team is using MeerKAT to observe narrow regions of the sky extremely deeply and will measure atomic hydrogen in galaxies from the distant past to now. The combination of studying hydroxyl masers and hydrogen will help astronomers better understand how the Universe has evolved over time.

“We have follow-up observations of the megamaser planned and hope to make many more discoveries,” Dr Glowacki said.

BELOW: Artist’s impression of a hydroxyl maser. Inside a galaxy merger are hydroxyl molecules, composed of one atom of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. When one molecule absorbs a photon at 18cm wavelength, it emits two photons of the same wavelength. When molecular gas is very dense, typically when two galaxies merge, this emission gets very bright and can be detected by radio telescopes such as the MeerKAT. Credit: IDIA/LADUMA using data from NASA/StSci/SKAO/ MolView

Nkalakatha’s host galaxy as viewed from Perth, Western Australia. It’s ~5 billion light years away and invisible to the naked eye, between Archernar and Aldebaran. Credit: ICRAR

Strange slow-spinning neutron star discovered in ‘stellar graveyard’

An international team of scientists, led by members of the European Research Councilfunded MeerTRAP group at The University of Manchester in the UK, has discovered an unusual, very slow-spinning neutron star using South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope.

The star, named PSR J0901-4046, is rotating once every 76 seconds and is unexpectedly emitting radio pulses.

Neutron stars (also known as pulsars) are extremely dense remnants of the supernova explosion of a massive star. They produce beams of radio waves that sweep across the sky as they spin, producing regular flashes like cosmic lighthouses. However, slow rotation along with a strong magnetic field, like that seen with PSR J0901-4046, is thought to inhibit radio emission, casting uncertainty on the exact nature of the object.

Whilst the radio energy produced by PSR J0901-4046 is characteristic of a pulsar, the chaotic structure within the pulses and their polarisation is similar to that seen in magnetars, and the spin rate is more consistent with that of a white dwarf. One possibility, the team suggests, is that it may belong to a new class of ultra-long period neutron stars.

PSR J0901-4046 was first discovered serendipitously when a single pulse was detected by the MeerTRAP instrument, which was piggybacking on observations by the ThunderKAT project Combining data from both projects enabled the teams to accurately locate the position of the neutron star, allowing for more detailed and sensitive follow-up observations.

The high sensitivity of MeerKAT observations, along with MeerTRAP’s ability to detect transients in real time and the simultaneous imaging from the ThunderKAT team, combined to make the discovery possible. In the case of PSR J0901-4046,

radio emission was only detected for a tiny fraction (0.5%) of its rotation period and therefore detecting similar sources will be observationally challenging.

Dr Manisha Caleb, formerly from The University of Manchester and now at the University of Sydney, Australia, who led the research said: “It is likely there are many more of these very slowly spinning sources in the galaxy which has important implications for how neutron stars are born and age. The majority of pulsar surveys do not search for periods this long and so we have no idea how many of these sources there might be.”

For now, the exact mechanisms behind the radio emission from PSR J0901-4046 remain a mystery. But with the unprecedented sensitivity of the next generation of radio telescopes like the SKA, coupled with the innovative techniques like those employed by scientists in the MeerTRAP team, previously unseen new classes of radio transients will be uncovered, advancing our understanding of the relationship between neutron stars, ultra-long period magnetars and fast radio bursts.

The paper, “Discovery of a radio-emitting neutron star with an ultra-long spin period of 76s”, is published in Nature Astronomy

BELOW: Artist impression of the 76s pulsar (in magenta) compared to other more rapidly spinning sources. Credit: Danielle Futselaar (

The Dwingeloo Test Station: a major milestone towards LOFAR2.0

A major upgrade to the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) is now a step closer following the opening of the new Dwingeloo Test Station (DTS) in the Netherlands, which will test prototype software and hardware for LOFAR2.0.

LOFAR is a pan-European radio telescope that links tens of thousands of antennas across 10 partner countries, an enormous geographical span which allows it to make remarkably sharp images. The low-band antennas (LBA) and high-band antennas (HBA) provide a powerful view of the lowest radio frequencies visible from Earth: from 10240 MHz.

At the time of construction, the available computational power meant that it was only possible to use either the LBA or HBA antennas at any given time. With LOFAR2.0, it will be possible to use all the LOFAR antennas at once and to expand the field-of-view of the stations. This is made possible by an order-of-magnitude increase in the computing power at the LOFAR stations, as well as a new central computational “brain”, the COBALT2.0 correlator and beam-former. Furthermore, a new White-Rabbit-based clock distribution system is being installed such that there

are no timing delays between the 38 Dutch LOFAR stations. [White Rabbit is a technology that provides extremely accurate (nanosecond level of accuracy) timing over the network. It can be used to provide timing to the antennas so that data from each receptor can be accurately timestamped. It is also being used by the SKAO for its telescopes.]

On 10 May, the Dwingeloo Test Station was ceremoniously opened. Located next to ASTRON, it is testing the entire LOFAR2.0 signal chain: from the antennas, through the new receiver boards and Uniboard-squared-based processing, all the way to the correlator and beam-former. This is a crucial step in the development process because it allows the prototype electronics, firmware and software to be tested before being rolled out to a full LOFAR station and then the entire array.

The team has already achieved the “first fringes” between test antennas

[showing they can operate as an array], as well as multi-day stability tests with all LBA and HBA antennas observing simultaneously. This progress means the first full LOFAR2.0 station is on track for delivery by early 2023.

These enhancements are being implemented from 2021-2024, and together will provide a step function in LOFAR’s overall scientific capabilities. It will remain a unique and world-leading telescope, also accessing the largely unexplored spectral window below 50 MHz.

Early LOFAR2.0 science observations are planned to begin in 2025, affording ultra-wide-band, ultra-deep, ultra-highresolution observations. Among the many scientific goals for LOFAR2.0, such observations can track the history of star formation and galaxy evolution over cosmic time, as well as identify starplanet interactions in our own galaxy.

ABOVE: Compilation of pictures of the DTS Opening event on the ASTRON premises on 10 May 2022. The speakers (from top left to bottom right) are ASTRON director Prof. Jessica Dempsey; LOFAR2.0 Station Development Project Manager Arno Schoenmakers; and LOFAR2.0 Project Scientist Prof. Jason Hessels. Photos courtesy of Adriaan Renting and Mark Ruiter (ASTRON).

Simphiwe Madlanga

Coordinator: Science Engagement, SARAO

In July 2022, science communicators from around the globe came together both in-person and online for the Public Awareness of Research Infrastructures (PARI) conference, hosted by the SKAO. Among them was Simphiwe Madlanga from South Africa, Coordinator for Science Engagement at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO).

Selected as one of the “Top 200 Young South Africans” in 2018 by the Mail & Guardian newspaper, Simphiwe has devoted his career to explaining astronomy and its benefits to communities across his home country. Currently in London on a prestigious UK government Chevening Scholarship, researching the societal impact of the SKA project in South Africa, Simphiwe spoke to us about lifelong learning, inspiring young people through science, and the value he finds in taking long walks.

Congratulations on your Chevening Scholarship, Simphiwe! What made you want to apply for it?

In the midst of the COVID-19 hard lockdown in my home country, South Africa, while unable to even be outdoors except to buy groceries at certain nationally designated hours, I

developed this burning urge to travel the world and elevate my learning and overall value proposition. I was completely unaccustomed to being stuck in one place for that long, because my job entails travelling all across South Africa regularly being in schools, universities and other places of public engagement around science.

Something stirred within me and asked the question; “What can you do that will change everything and surpass all the circumstances you now find yourself in?”

I applied to three universities in the United Kingdom and simultaneously applied to the Chevening Award. I had no idea when lockdown would end or

Team SKA

if travel to another country would even be possible, but as part of my life goal I had no doubt that this was the best next step in my life. Lo and behold, I was awarded the scholarship; only 1,633 were awarded from more than 64,000 applicants, and I was one of the 50 from South Africa.

Your postgraduate studies are focused on the impact of the SKA project – tell us more.

I want to explore in very specific ways what the SKA project means for South Africa in the context of the many other country-wide facets that are prevalent. The relevant modules in my postgraduate programme include Innovation and the Knowledge Economy and Management of Emerging Technologies. I hope that through this academic journey I may be an active participant in unlocking the added meaning and value of the SKA to my home country.

Rewinding to your early life, what was your childhood like?

I was born in a small town called Mount Frere, in one of the rural provinces in South Africa. The village where my parents grew up and which I call home is eNjijini location. I was fortunate that my father’s family valued education and the opportunities it brought in life; this was in no small part due to my grandfather who was a school teacher and relatively well accomplished in the community. Once I reached school age, I was taken under the wing of and raised by a well-educated uncle of mine in a nearby small city called Umtata. I spent much of my formative years there and just when I was about to be a teenager, I relocated to be under my biological father’s care in a different town (the active role both these men played in my upbringing means they are both deemed my fathers). The different experiences and exposure to many

role models helped me to be where I am today. Growing up in different households, different towns and cities enhanced my social awareness and I learned much from these exemplary men, in terms of education, discipline, ambition and being an upstanding citizen, among many other things.

I grew up reading many different books in both English and my home language isiXhosa. I was an inquisitive, boisterous and daring young person so I got to experience many things and learn through first-hand experience. My life growing up is aptly summed up by the

around us (the Universe in our context, of course). I have always been drawn to the outside world, and going to the countryside every holiday break meant we could play in open fields to our hearts’ content.

I developed a fascination with how things work, why they are the way they are and that led to my love of geography in school. Natural processes were my favourite aspect about geography; the cycles, interplays and interconnectedness of natural phenomena. I enjoyed it so much that I would read my school textbook ahead of the class; even going into material that was not yet taught in the year I was studying. So yes, I have loved science ever since I can remember, and perhaps even before I “knew” that it was science. That enjoyment of the outdoors led you to study geology at university. When did you decide that science communication and engagement was the route you wanted to take for a career?

words of Albert Einstein when he said “Play is the highest form of research,” and O. Fred Donaldson, a specialist in this area, who is credited with the words “Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.” I would dare say that I am living proof that what these two gentlemen said is indeed true.

Did you love science as a youngster?

The simplest definition of science that I know is that it is the study of the world

After I finished my bachelor degree I happened to find contract employment at the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) wherein we worked with schools to support chemistry and physics education and practical demonstrations. This is where my science communication journey began, through the learner and teacher workshops that we ran. It only became a conscious career path when I realised that geological fieldwork or oil and gas exploration were not really for me in the long-term. I thereafter applied for a position at Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) as a Science Communicator.

Your academic achievements are extensive! Could you give us an overview and tell us what drives you to keep learning?

I am formally qualified as a geologist, and registered as a Professional Natural Scientist (Earth Science) under the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP).

ABOVE: Simphiwe is a keen walker – seen here at the famous Seven Sisters chalk cliffs on England’s south coast.

I possess other qualifications in science communication, management development and project management. It was not part of my original plan to study as much as I have done and indeed continue to do. After I completed my undergraduate studies I thought I was done with school. It took only a few years in the workplace for me to realise that the essence of life is to grow and to become better; and in my opinion continuous learning is the best tool for that. I now identify as a lifelong learner. The philosopher Mortimer Adler captured this eloquently with the words: “The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as long as we live.”

Let’s focus on the SKA project now –what interests you about it and how did you become involved?

I am intrigued by the ambitiousness of the entire project! The whole process from ideation; conceptual framework and real-world implementation in such a phased way over such a long time period yet still keeping true to the overarching goal. This fascinates me and resonates with me.

It seems I became a part of the SKA project by default; I spent six years at HartRAO and then migrated to SKA South Africa around the time when both entities coalesced to become SARAO around four years ago.

Working in outreach, are there moments when it is really brought home to you how important science communication and engagement is for a big project like the SKA?

Every time I go to under-resourced, under-served schools and participate in the demystification of science and astronomy in particular. Every time I witness the “penny-drop” moments wherein both learners and teachers truly realise how astronomy infrastructure actually works and the phenomenal discoveries that have been made including the technological advancements that have come from such research at varying scales.

My greatest joy is when I am able to help the public understand that astronomy is the oldest science and that all of us are participants in it, in some way. Sharing with them the concept that

what they see with their own eyes on a dark starry night or feel on their skin on a lovely sunny day is just some of the types of light or radiation that exist out there; and that radio astronomy instruments detect the type/s that our bodies are not designed to detect. The “aha moments” that follow such a revelation are priceless for me.

Science and engineering are often seen as not very diverse or inclusive. What is your experience of this, and how do you feel it could be improved?

The work I have been doing for the past 10 years in science communication and engagement has brought about a heightened sense of awareness of diversity and inclusion. I work in communities where there is an absence of role models, among many other scarcities. When one enters school classrooms, there are usually good levels of enthusiasm from most of the learners toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. During lessons and practical activities, all genders seem to either be fascinated by the concepts or show a general keenness to learn more.

I believe that something happens through secondary schooling and tertiary education levels that either especially alienates or discourages girls and young women leading to less of them following these streams further, which is really unfortunate. What is seen in the workplaces is an outcome of a pipeline that may have not served all people the same way. I am uncertain how much of it can be attributed to adverse socialisation and how much to systematic inadequacies.

This of course then extends to aspects of valid representation of different population groups at various levels in the field of practice and in the leadership of organisations. I am aware

At a township school in South Africa; helping a student to reach the top of the board during a practical science demonstration during a class.

that there are initiatives that are being advanced but much still definitely needs to be done to improve the situation.

Impact beyond science is a key driver for the SKAO, through human capacity development for example. How do you see the SKA project contributing to this?

Great work is being done on different fronts, including encouraging young students to embrace STEM studies, hiring science teachers, equipping local school classrooms with computers or other material, and providing artisan training, among several other initiatives. I can give a snapshot from my time within Research Capacity Development (RCD) at SARAO, which provides support and help to develop university students, from undergraduate study right to post-doctoral level. Further support is given through various workshops to help students understand SARAO and the SKA better while getting the opportunity to visit the research sites and interface with the experts in person and within context.

Another significant role that RCD plays is funding of research groups in universities so that researchers may work with bright students, to develop a new cadre of postgraduate students toward strengthening the overall research fraternity in radio astronomy prospectively.

Moving away from work, what do you like to do in your free time to unwind after all that studying and working?

I love to walk, I average 40 kilometres a week. I get to reflect and think about my life, taking lessons from past experiences and treating any event or situation as a case-study to draw value from even in retrospect. I also use that time to do scenario planning though some people may say I tend to overthink things. On the lighter side though, I like to take in the sights as I walk and I enjoy taking pictures of buildings, nature and in particular clouds. I prefer walking in the countryside as a first prize, but I am happy to walk in the city too wherever walkways are available. In my time in the UK I have already hiked up to Arthur’s

Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland, and have also walked the Seven Sisters trail between Seaford and Eastbourne on England’s south coast, all 22 kilometres of it on a nice sunny day.

Has there been a highlight of your time in the UK so far?

I have had the privilege of experiencing a number of momentous occasions, but the one that stands out is attending Evensong’s service at Westminster Abbey by invitation of the office of the South African High Commissioner to the UK, Her Excellency O. Tambo. On 28 April 2022, a day after South Africa’s Freedom Day celebrations, a service was held with special mention of our country and the people of South Africa. The High Commissioner was also given a chance to deliver a reading and it was altogether a very touching moment. In 10 years’ time where do you see yourself? Do you like to set such plans, or just see where life takes you?

I would say that I am a person who believes in life goals and mine are quite overarching; to study until my last day, teach in whatever capacity I am able to and to lead in pioneering projects – which of course by nature transcend the five or 10 year plan conversation. I see myself attaining a Doctorate qualification, supervising postgraduate students, serving in advisory boards and executive roles, and being a true global citizen among many other roles in the future.

I firmly believe that I am a multipotentialite and am equal to the challenges that come with various inclinations and ambitious pursuits. It is not easy and it may not be for everyone, but those who firmly believe it will achieve it. The broadcaster and author Earl Nightingale captured it best, in my opinion, when he said: “Success is defined as the progressive realisation of a worthy goal.”

All photos courtesy of Simphiwe Madlanga.


In each issue of Contact, we’ll get to know one of the many talented people contributing to the SKA project, hearing about their work, how they got here and their advice for the next generation. You can find more profiles on our website

ABOVE: Attending the 2022 Chevening Summit at the ExCel Centre in London in March 2022.

New Eyes on the Universe: ngVLA and SKA conference

Save the date for a landmark radio astronomy science meeting designed to highlight the complementarity and synergies between the two premier radio astronomy instruments of the 21st century: the SKA telescopes and the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Next Generation Very Large Array (ngVLA).

To be held in Vancouver, Canada, at the Pan Pacific Hotel the week of 30 April 2023, this meeting will review, discuss, and extend the cutting-edge science opportunities enabled by the unprecedented SKA-ngVLA coverage across three decades of radio frequency (50 MHz to 116 GHz).

Plenary talks will feature the highest-priority science for these facilities, striving to determine where new scientific understanding is most likely to result from access to both observatories. Contributed talks will focus on topics that highlight each facility’s strengths. Please mark the dates in your calendar and stay tuned for further announcements!

Registration open for final ESCAPE meeting

The ESCAPE project, which is a European Commission-funded project running since 2019, is completing its work after three highly productive years. Its final event, ESCAPE to the Future, will be held between 25 and 26 October at the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

ESCAPE has brought together communities from several major research infrastructures in astronomy, astro-particle and high-energy physics to develop technologies to improve the way these great experiments can coordinate, make available and process their vast amounts of scientific data. The work has covered a range of areas including citizen science, data management, scientific analysis, software curation and sharing, and making use of the virtual observatory standards to improve data findability and interoperability.

The final meeting will see ESCAPE members share their results and achievements, present ESCAPE services and discuss future challenges after the project ends.

The event is open to all and free of charge. Registration is open until 24 September and attendance is welcome in person or through remote connection; please note in-person attendance is limited to 150 people, so early registration is advised.

Register here

36 CONTACT ISSUE 11 Events

Major international events fill the SKAO calendar

After countless event cancellations in recent years due to the pandemic, 2022 has seen the return of international conferences. The SKAO has been well represented at some of the biggest both in person and virtually, with many presentations and a brand new booth enabling the team to reconnect with the wider community and make new contacts for the future. Among them (clockwise from top left)): the European Astronomical Society meeting in Valencia, Spain, in June; SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation in Montreal, Canada, in July; the 65th Session of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS); the launch of the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris; and the IAU General Assembly in Busan, South Korea, in August.


National Science Weeks engage thousands in South Africa and Australia

In August, South Africa and Australia held their National Science Weeks, a major opportunity to engage with and inspire communities across both SKA telescope host countries.

South Africa’s National Science Week, which ran from 1-6 August, is an annual celebration of the role and value of science and technology in people’s daily lives, led by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). This year the theme was “Celebrating the role of basic sciences in the modern world”, in line with the UN-declared International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development which was launched in July, of which the SKAO is a partner.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) and SARAO organised a roadshow in the Northern Cape province focusing on the SKAO footprint in the area. The SARAO Science Engagement team visited the towns of Williston, Vanwyksvlei, Brandvlei and Carnarvon, reaching more than 4,000 people through school visits. Alongside talks on astronomy and radio astronomy, and activities that highlighted careers and opportunities provided by the NRF-SARAO and the SKAO, learners were engaged with activities including a rocket launching competition and nighttime sky viewing through telescopes.

Australia’s National Science Week took place from 13 to 21 August, with strong involvement by researchers involved in the SKA project. It kicked off early with an event in the Murchison on Wajarri country, close to CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. Students from the Pia Wadjarri Remote Community School joined CSIRO and the Australian SKA Office team to launch water rockets towards the Moon, with the generous loan of some ICRAR equipment.

Celebrating the SKA project, two special observing events took place in remote Western Australian towns Cue and Mingenew, the latter with guest speaker Dr Jimi Green (SKA-Low Head of Science Operations), with two more events to follow with SKALow guests in October.

ICRAR hosted “From eyes to glass to aluminium: a history of astronomy ”, a public talk attended by 160 curious minds. The team also visited local schools and an event at WA Museum Boola Bardip to showcase the SKA and astronomy.

Leaders from ASKAP research and operations jumped online for a recap of the great year had by CSIRO’s SKA precursor telescope. Sixty-five people joined in to hear about ASKAP astronomy, operations and management, as well as looking to the future with the SKA project.

Finally, ICRAR astronomer Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker teamed up with artist Becksi to create “galactic blooms”, a T-shirt design crossing the MWA GLEAM survey radio sky with wildflowers of the Murchison region. It was voted Australia’s favourite science T-shirt during National Science Week, and readers in Australia and New Zealand can order their own! Profits are donated to organisations supporting diversity and inclusion in STEM.

ABOVE: ICRAR-Curtin’s Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker models the ‘galactic blooms’ T-shirt Credit: Jun Tian, ICRAR-Curtin PhD student Credit: SARAO

A collage of photos of all the various activites that took place for the National Science Weeks in both Australia and South Africa.

Credits: SARAO & ICRAR-Curtin


SKAO in the

The Astroholic Explains

SKA: The Future Of Radio Astronomy – [Listen] What do the SKA telescopes and dragonflies have in common? Both obtain a better picture by using compound “eyes”. SKAO scientist Dr Anna Bonaldi used this analogy to explain the principle of interferometry.

The Conversation

How visionary scientist Bernie Fanaroff put African astronomy on the map – For the 50th episode of their podcast Cosmic Savannah, astronomers Daniel Cunnama and Jacinta Delhaize interviewed Dr Bernie Fanaroff, who was project director for South Africa’s bid to host the SKA telescope.

Space Australia

Setonix and ASKAP fire up to image ancient stellar explosion – Marvel at the wide field-of-view of the ASKAP telescope in the first image generated by Australia’s powerful Setonix supercomputer. It revealed the remnant of a supernova explosion.

Astronomy inspires bluedot festival-goers

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, it was fantastic to have the bluedot festival back on the SKAO’s doorstep at the end of July.

Bluedot is an award-winning festival of discovery set against the backdrop of the iconic Lovell Telescope. It combines a truly stellar line-up of music with a rich programme of live science experiments, expert talks and immersive artworks.

During the four-day festival, the SKAO had its own stand staffed by volunteers from the Observatory and partner organisations who used the weekend to talk to and inspire festival-goers of all ages.

Our very own Dr Shari Breen, head of science operations, gave an expert talk (“Unveiling our galaxy, the Milky Way”) to a full crowd in the aptly named Mission Control tent.

Thank you to Shari and all our volunteers for making the SKAO’s involvement at bluedot a success!

Iranian Students’ News Agency

Iran’s participation in the world’s most ambitious radio telescope – [In Persian] Dr Fatemeh Tabatabaei from the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences in Iran elaborates on a paper she co-authored, intended to guide the SKA engineering team on how to better detect emissions from distant galaxies.

IT Web

Mega science SKA project reaches 10-year mark – On Africa Day (25 May), South Africa’s higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande highlighted the benefits to the country flowing from hosting the SKA-Mid telescope.

The Australia Today

Australia and India space collaboration to strengthen in coming years, says Dr Yashwant Gupta – Featuring a video interview with Prof. Yashwant Gupta, director of the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics in India, who discusses India and Australia’s efforts to build the SKA telescopes.

ABOVE: Aerial image of the Jodrell Bank site when Bluedot is taking place. Credit: Jodrell Bank/Bluedot

SKAO jobs

With the start of construction of the SKA telescopes, we continue to recruit HQ-based staff across a number of areas. We are now also recruiting roles based in Australia and South Africa. Some of those roles are employed through our partners CSIRO and SARAO. Make sure to register on our recruitment website to receive alerts.

Telescope Configuration Manager

The Telescope Configuration Manager is a key member of the SKAO Assurance Group and will be responsible for the Configuration Management activities on the Radio Telescopes being constructed in South Africa and Australia.

Deadline: 14/09/2022


Control Software Engineer

The Control Software Engineer will ensure that the Control Systems for the two SKA telescopes are developed to the highest standards, providing their technical skills to all software development teams involved in the realisation of the controls software.

Deadline: 16/09/2022


Engineer – Technical Writer

The Technical Writer will be part of the SKA Operations Group where they will restructure and develop data modules and work packages, and ensure that financial, quality and timeframe objectives are met.

Deadline: 22/09/2022


Senior Domain Engineer

The Senior Domain Engineer will provide engineering support and leadership, both in their specific discipline and across the entire SKAMid Telescope. Working in collaboration with the SKAO System Scientists, the Senior Domain Engineer will be responsible for the performance of the SKA-Mid Telescope.

Deadline: 22/09/2022

Standards Engineer

The Standards Engineer will be responsible for the identification and definition (where necessary) of standards and oversee their implementation for the different contracts in the SKA project to ensure the products and services comply with the SKAO, statutory and regulatory requirements.

Deadline: 28/09/2022


Celebrating our community: awards and honours

In this section we celebrate success and recognise colleagues, partners and members of the community who have received prestigious grants, awards and honours. Congratulations to all of them from the SKAO! If you’ve heard of a relevant award for a member of Team SKA, contact us at

Naomi McClure-Griffiths, chair of the SKAO’s Science and Engineering Advisory Committee, and Prof. Matthew Bailes, a member of the SKAO’s Pulsars Science Working Group, were made fellows of the Australian Science Academy for their outstanding contributions to science.

Dr Bernie Fanaroff, former managing director of SKA South Africa (now SARAO) has been elected into the membership of the prestigious American Philosophical Society. Election to the society honours extraordinary accomplishments in all fields.


Prof. Françoise Combes, co-chair of the SKAO’s Extragalactic Spectral Line Science Working Group, was awarded the 2022 Karl G. Jansky Lectureship by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), honouring her significant contributions to the fields of galaxy evolution, the interstellar medium, dark matter, and radio astronomy.

Dr Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalucia, a member the SKAO’s HI Galaxy Science Science Working Group, was awarded Spain’s Ada Byron prize which recognises the achievements of women in technology.

Dr John Ilee, a member of the UK SKA Science Committee and the SKAO’s Cradle of Life Science Working Group, has been awarded an STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellowship to work on ‘Unlocking the organic chemistry of planet formation’. He will develop models of proto-planetary disks, which will be used to interpret data from the SKA, JWST and ALMA.

Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker, co-chair of the SKAO’s Extragalactic Continuum Science Working Group, was awarded the Australian Astronomical Society’s Anne Green Prize for a significant advancement by a mid-career scientist. The ASKAP telescope team – representing more than 100 engineers and researchers – received the Peter McGregor Prize 2022 for innovation in astronomical instrumentation.



Published by the SKAO Communications team.

EDITOR: William Garnier

EDITORIAL TEAM: Mathieu Isidro, Cassandra Cavallaro, Anim van Wyk

DESIGN: Joe Diamond, based on an original design by Carbon Creative

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All images in Contact are courtesy of SKAO unless otherwise indicated.


The SKAO, formally known as the SKA Observatory, is an intergovernmental organisation composed of Member States from five continents and headquartered in the UK. Its 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. Its two telescopes, each composed of hundreds of dishes and thousands of antennas, will be constructed in South Africa and Australia and be the two most advanced radio telescopes 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’s 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 to address 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.

FRONT COVER: This issue’s cover celebrates the return of outreach activities in the SKAO host countries, with SKA-related activities featuring strongly during National Science Weeks in Australia and South Africa, and at the major bluedot festival hosted next door to the SKAO HQ site in the UK.

HYPERLINKS: Contact is produced primarily as a digital magazine. If you are reading a print copy, use the QR code to read this and other issues of Contact online and access the hyperlinks.

Articles inside

Pathfinders: Highlights from SKA precursor and pathfinder facilities around the world article cover image

Pathfinders: Highlights from SKA precursor and pathfinder facilities around the world

pages 27-31
The cover article cover image

The cover

pages 1, 44
Astronomy inspires bluedot festival-goers article cover image

Astronomy inspires bluedot festival-goers

page 40
Registration open for final ESCAPE meeting article cover image

Registration open for final ESCAPE meeting

page 36
New Eyes on the Universe: ngVLA and SKA conference article cover image

New Eyes on the Universe: ngVLA and SKA conference

page 36
Progress on show at first SKA telescopes status meetings article cover image

Progress on show at first SKA telescopes status meetings

page 18
2 minutes with... Prof. Richard Schilizzi article cover image

2 minutes with... Prof. Richard Schilizzi

page 18
UK announces major funding for SKA Regional Centre strategy article cover image

UK announces major funding for SKA Regional Centre strategy

page 9
Experts gather for exploratory workshop on SRC computing technology article cover image

Experts gather for exploratory workshop on SRC computing technology

page 9
SARAO appoints next managing director article cover image

SARAO appoints next managing director

page 7
SKAO features in special section of SPIE journal article cover image

SKAO features in special section of SPIE journal

page 7
Celebrating our community: awards and honours article cover image

Celebrating our community: awards and honours

pages 42-44
SKAO and partner jobs article cover image

SKAO and partner jobs

page 41
National Science Weeks engage thousands in South Africa and Australia article cover image

National Science Weeks engage thousands in South Africa and Australia

pages 38-39
Major international events fill the SKAO calendar article cover image

Major international events fill the SKAO calendar

page 37
The Dwingeloo Test Station: a major milestone towards LOFAR2.0 article cover image

The Dwingeloo Test Station: a major milestone towards LOFAR2.0

page 31
Simphiwe Madlanga – Coordinator: Science Engagement SARAO article cover image

Simphiwe Madlanga – Coordinator: Science Engagement SARAO

pages 32-35
Astronomers detect galactic space laser article cover image

Astronomers detect galactic space laser

page 29
Strange slow-spinning neutron star discovered in ‘stellar graveyard’ article cover image

Strange slow-spinning neutron star discovered in ‘stellar graveyard’

page 30
SKA precursor telescopes don ‘sunglasses’ to find brightest ever pulsar article cover image

SKA precursor telescopes don ‘sunglasses’ to find brightest ever pulsar

page 28
Promising beginnings for Australia’s newest supercomputer article cover image

Promising beginnings for Australia’s newest supercomputer

page 27
SKAO launches brand new website article cover image

SKAO launches brand new website

page 20
SKA Science Working Groups highlight their research goals article cover image

SKA Science Working Groups highlight their research goals

page 21
Local impact study of HERA shows direct benefits of radio astronomy infrastructure article cover image

Local impact study of HERA shows direct benefits of radio astronomy infrastructure

page 26
Software for telescopes surges ahead article cover image

Software for telescopes surges ahead

pages 22-23
Growth of SKAO teams in Australia and South Africa gathers pace article cover image

Growth of SKAO teams in Australia and South Africa gathers pace

page 19
New Science Data Challenge hones hunt for hydrogen article cover image

New Science Data Challenge hones hunt for hydrogen

page 17
Editorial article cover image


page 3
SKA space science documentary airs in Australia article cover image

SKA space science documentary airs in Australia

page 4
Celebrating the history of radio astronomy at the UK’s Jodrell Bank article cover image

Celebrating the history of radio astronomy at the UK’s Jodrell Bank

page 5
Prof. Philip Diamond reappointed to head up SKAO article cover image

Prof. Philip Diamond reappointed to head up SKAO

page 16
Swiss celebrate SKAO membership at Davos article cover image

Swiss celebrate SKAO membership at Davos

page 6
Featured image: Science communication in practice article cover image

Featured image: Science communication in practice

pages 14-15
Let’s talk about... solar physics article cover image

Let’s talk about... solar physics

pages 10-13
China publishes development report on participation in the SKA project article cover image

China publishes development report on participation in the SKA project

page 8
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