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UK World Heritage Site officially becomes home to the HQ of the Earth's biggest ever radio telescope

Jodrell Bank in the UK yesterday officially become the home of the new international organisation behind what will soon be the World’s biggest ever radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA will be both the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, stretching technology to its limits and UK engineers, technologists and astronomers will be at the forefront of making this project a success.

The UK is one of the seven founding countries involved in the SKA Project creating the intergovernmental organisation that will oversee the delivery of the SKA. Once operational the SKA will improve our understanding of the evolution of the Universe and help us to map hundreds of millions of galaxies.

Located on the grounds of The University of Manchester’s historic Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site this week, SKA’s Global Headquarters was designed from the start to become a centre for radio astronomy and a global hub for astrophysics in the 21st century. Operated by an international partnership of countries, it is already home to staff from 16 nations who are currently focused on delivering the final design of the two SKA telescopes in collaboration with international partner institutes, drawing on the expertise of specialists from around the world.

Once built, the SKA telescopes will have an expected lifespan of at least 50 years, making the GHQ a global focal point for radio astronomy for decades to come.

“This facility is key to enabling us to deliver the world’s largest radio telescope” said Professor Philip Diamond, Director-General of the SKA Organisation. “It will serve as a central hub for all the experts, more than 1,000 of them, working on this ambitious project around the world.”

In addition to hosting the SKA GHQ the UK also makes a financial contribution to the design, construction and operation of the SKA itself and the UK’s technical and scientific expertise will be built into the SKA’s DNA. Scientists and engineers at UK universities and institutions are involved right across the design of the SKA including from the Universities of Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge and from the UKRI STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory, STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre.

Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive, UK Research and Innovation yesterday said:

"Today's milestone reinforces the UK's leading position in global astronomy and UKRI's commitment to strengthening international research and innovation. The Square Kilometre Array will help us answer fundamental questions about the nature and the origin of our Universe, providing insights that will drive future discoveries. In addition, the new technologies and methods it will pioneer will deliver advances in computing, information technology and big data processing, with the potential to create significant benefit across many areas of modern life.”

UK industry has also been involved with the design of the SKA with over fifty UK companies awarded contracts in systems engineering, project management and software development.

In addition the SKA project offers the UK astronomy research community the opportunity to address some of the fundamental questions in research on the origin and evolution of the Universe. At the same time the technical innovations needed for the project will transform the capabilities of high-performance computing.

During the inauguration, Professor Mark Thomson, Executive Chair of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), presented a commemorative key to Professor Diamond to mark the ceremonial handover of the building to the SKA.

The opening of the SKA Headquarters marks a major milestone for this incredibly exciting scientific project”, said Professor Thomson. “The UK Government, through STFC, has committed £100m to the construction of the SKA and the headquarters itself and I am thrilled that the UK is hosting the home of this global endeavour. I look forward to seeing the headquarters filled with some of the brightest minds in the field of astronomy from across the world working to fulfil SKA’s mission to reveal more of the universe than ever seen before.”

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Manchester, which operates the Jodrell Bank site and led on the delivery of the building, said: “After Jodrell Bank’s designation as a World Heritage Site earlier this week, having the GHQ of the SKA at our Jodrell Bank site will greatly enhance the links we have with scientists across the world and further strengthen the development of the field of astrophysics. This is an important reminder of the international importance of science and of the UK’s crucial role in such endeavours.”

More than 200 guests including government officials from SKA member countries were welcomed to the SKA GHQ for the event, which included a commemorative lecture by renowned astrophysicist Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, co-discoverer of the first radio pulsars.

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Construction of the £16.5m expansion of the original SKA office at Jodrell Bank started in 2017, funded by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (£9.8m) via UKRI, The University of Manchester (£5.7m) and Cheshire East Council (£1m). The design was led by international architecture practice Hassell and the construction by engineering and construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine.

Facilities within the 4,200 m2 building include a 160-seat auditorium for science conferences, workshops and public talks, and state-of-the-art video conferencing technology to connect teams spread over 20 time zones, as well as an Operations Monitoring Centre to remotely manage the telescopes around the clock. Environmental features were a priority in the design, such as electric vehicle recharging, thermal zoning control and dark-sky compliant external lighting, which have ensured the building exceeds sustainable requirements.

The Jodrell Bank site was granted UNESCO World Heritage status earlier this week, celebrating its outstanding contribution to the development of radio astronomy globally, including the role played by the 76m Lovell Telescope, once the world’s largest single dish radio telescope. Fittingly, the world’s future largest radio telescope, the SKA, is being led by an international collaboration from the same site.

UK involvement in the SKA

The UK has committed £100 million to the construction of the SKA telescope and its Global Head-quarters – as well as £70 million to its initial operation period.

By the time it is completed SKA will reach across continents and involve thousands of scientists from around the world. It will consist of 130,000 antennas and 133 radio telescope dishes, which will join the 64 dishes of the existing MeerKAT array in South Africa.

The UK has also committed to investing £100m in construction of the SKA - 16% of the total construction cost.

The UK has been leading the design of some of the most important big data elements of the SKA (the Signal and Data Transport network, the Science Data Processor and the pulsar search engine).

In addition to hosting the SKA HQ on its Jodrell Bank site the University of Manchester is also leading the design of the Signal and Data Transport (SADT) networks which will be the backbone of the SKA.

The University of Cambridge is leading the design of the Science Data Processor (SDP), which includes the hardware, software and algorithms needed to produce the science data products required by astronomers.

The University of Oxford is leading the design of the cryostats for the feed for Band 3, 4 & 5 for the SKA-mid dishes.

The Universities of Oxford and Manchester are co-leading the design of the Non-Imaging Processing for the SKA which includes the pulsar search engine and pulsar timing element.

The Universities of Manchester and Cambridge are involved in the design of the Low Frequency Aperture Array (LFAA), as well as the Mid Frequency Aperture Array (MFAA) which is being developed for Phase 2 of the SKA.

The UKRI STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the UK Astronomy Technology Centre are involved across the Telescope Manager, Central Signal Processor (CSP) and SDP.

About the SKA

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope. The SKA is not a single telescope, but a collection of telescopes, called an array, to be spread over long distances. It will be constructed in Australia and South Africa with a later expansion in both countries and into other African countries.

The design has been led by the SKA Organisation based near Manchester, UK and supported by more than 1,000 engineers and scientists in 20 countries. The SKA Organisation is transitioning to the SKA Observatory, an intergovernmental organisation established by treaty, to undertake the construction and operation of the telescope.

The SKA will conduct transformational science and help to address fundamental gaps in our understanding of the Universe including the formation and evolution of galaxies, fundamental physics in extreme environments and the origins of life in the universe.

The SKA Global Headquarters

About Jodrell Bank

The University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory is the home of the world-famous Lovell Telescope and operates e-MERLIN, the UK's national radio astronomy facility funded by STFC that links seven radio telescopes over 217km. The Lovell Telescope, which dominates the site, was the world’s largest telescope when it was completed in 1957. It is now more powerful than ever and has become an icon of science & engineering.


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