Convention establishing the Square Kilometre Array Observatory
This chapter reviews the Convention establishing the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (the Convention). The Convention provides for the establishment of the governing body of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO). Once ratified, the Convention will formalise Australia as a co-host for the first phase of the Observatory, SKA 1.
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is an international partnership to build and operate the world’s largest, most advanced radio observatories. The project dates backs to the early 1990s and Australia has been a participant since its inception.
According to representatives of the Department of Innovation, Industry and Science (DIIS):
This is Australia’s first opportunity to co-host a multinational megascience facility. It will stand alongside other landmark science facilities such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research, otherwise known as CERN. The scientific benefits of Australia co-hosting the SKA observatory are substantial.
The SKA observatories will detect radio waves. Radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes visible light. Radio waves have a lower frequency than visible light. Visible light has a wavelength between 380 to 700 nanometres, while radio waves have a wavelength between seven centimetres and ten metres.
Radio waves are a useful tool for space observation because, unlike visible light, radio waves are not impacted by atmospheric interference like clouds. This means that radio wave observatories can be built on the earth’s surface and can as a consequence be very large. The larger an observatory is, the better it will be at detecting radio waves from very distant, very dim objects.
The SKA observatories will be used to investigate, amongst other things:
the evolution of galaxies;
the origin of cosmic magnetism; and
the origin of stars and black holes.
In relation to the allocation of time at the observatories:
The basic principle on access is that members have access to telescope time proportional to their contribution, but that time allocation will be on the basis of merit.
The raw data collected by the observatories will be publicly available for all scientists to use.
Professor Fred Watson AM, Astronomer-at-Large, advised the Committee that:
…this machine will generate Nobel prizes and there's a very good chance that some of those will come to Australian scientists. In the scientific armoury, it is amongst the highest potential for delivering good science.
The National Interest Analysis (NIA) argues that once completed, SKA will be one of very few scientific facilities of global significance. The project will be delivered in multiple phases.
The first phase, called SKA 1, involves the construction of radio observatories in Australia and South Africa. Australia will host a low frequency observatory (SKA1-Low) and South Africa will host a mid-frequency observatory (SKA1-Mid). The SKA project is currently in the pre‑construction phase. Pre-construction is expected to be completed in mid‑2020.
The United Kingdom is leading the design and development of the project.
The NIA states that the SKAO comes into existence at the entry into force of the Convention. Following the establishment of the SKAO, the construction phase of the project will begin.
The model for on-the-ground implementation and operation of the observatories is currently under development. Precursor observatories located at the future SKA sites are currently conducting research and testing that will inform the project. The sites include the Murchison Widefield Array and the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), both located in Western Australia.
These precursor laboratories have already produced significant benefits for Australian science. For example:
ASKAP is a telescope which consists of 36 12-metre dishes … and they work together with novel technology that we've developed in Australia to survey‑telescope faster than any other radio telescope before.
During the pre-construction and construction phases of the project, the DIIS will operate the Australian SKA Office (ASKAO). ASKAO is responsible for Australia’s policy, planning and engagement role in SKA.
Phases subsequent to phase 1 will be determined by the parties to the Convention.
The proposed Convention
According to the NIA, the Convention will provide a framework for SKA Member countries to collaborate on transformative scientific research and to explore fundamental questions in radio astronomy and physics.
There are a number of benefits to be gained for Australia, including:
co-hosting a landmark piece of international science infrastructure;
cementing Australia’s status as a world leader in radio astronomy and its suitability as a location for radio wave observatories;
reinforcing Australia’s commitment to international cooperation in scientific and technological fields.
The NIA suggests that Australia’s membership of the SKAO, particularly hosting the site for SKA1-Low, will benefit Australia by:
delivering significant scientific, economic, technological and human capital benefits;
permitting Australian scientists access to the most powerful collection of radio telescopes in the world, enabling them to undertake ground-breaking research in astronomy and fundamental physics; and
providing an avenue for enhancing Australia’s world-leading profile in radio astronomy research.
In relation to the financial benefits, Mrs Jane Urquhart, representing DIIS noted:
The observatory will be, by nature, a large enterprise involving significant expenditure and employment in the member countries but particularly in host countries like Australia and South Africa…we anticipate that the observatory will expend around [A$1 billion] on the Australian component of SKA phase I over the first 10 years and, of that, we estimate around $580 million will be paid to Australian firms and employees in the form of contracts and wages. Over the same period, the Australian government itself will outlay an estimated $390 million investment in the Square Kilometre Array.
Modelling commissioned by DIIS estimated that the Australian economy would receive $1.13 for every dollar spent by the Australian Government in the first ten years, and $1.41 for every dollar invested over the first 30 years.
The SKAO is a membership based organisation in which each party to the convention is represented on a governing body, the SKAO Council. The Council will be responsible for:
the overall strategic and scientific direction of the SKAO;
the appointment of a Director-General;
the establishment of policies, rules and regulations;
the approval of budgets; and
the publication of annual reports.
The Australian radio wave observatory, SKA1-Low will be constructed at a site within the existing Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory Lease and Boolardy Pastoral Lease areas, which are currently leased and managed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
CSIRO will maintain its obligations under the existing lease until they are consolidated under a single new lease. Once the new lease is established, CSIRO will hold the lease and manage the site for SKA1-Low on behalf of the Commonwealth. CSIRO will provide a sub-license to the SKAO that will allow it to construct and operate the SKA1-Low on the new lease.
The location is ideal for radio wave detection because of the Murchison’s isolation from terrestrial radio wave sources. The Murchison Radio‑astronomy Observatory is 800 kilometres from Perth on the ancestral lands of the Wajarri Yamaji people.
No legislation will be required to implement the Convention.
Currently, Australia contributes 17 per cent of the annual budget of the SKA.
Once the Convention is ratified, parties will be obliged to make financial contributions according to a Funding Schedule that will been approved by the Council, based on the Financial Protocol of the SKAO (Annex B of the Convention).
Australia, as a host country, will have the value of the assets and infrastructure Australia provides to the SKAO incorporated in the calculation of Australia’s Funding Schedule.
The Australian Government estimates that the costs to Australia will be:
an indicative contribution of 14 per cent of the SKA Phase 1 capital and operations budgets, noting that these budgets have not yet been finalised;
making the SKA site available for a minimum of 50 years, and providing management arrangements for it; and
contributing certain Host Country infrastructure elements to the project, including some at Australia’s expense.
Draft Indigenous Land Use Agreement
An Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) has been negotiated with the Wajarri Yamaji people, the registered native title holders of the area that contains the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory and what will be the Australian SKA site.
The CSIRO and DIIS established a relationship with the Wajarri people in relation to the Square Kilometre Array in 2008. According to Mrs Urquhart:
… engagements with the Wajarri people have included benefits that the CSIRO has delivered as part of its existing relationship with the Wajarri Yamatji people, including around employment, business, and cultural and educational benefits under the pre-existing land use agreement.
DIIS has also engaged the Wajarri people through a range of cultural and educational events, including tuition in the Wajarri language.
The current ILUA will be superseded by a new ILUA covering the SKA1‑Low site, which is larger than the current site. The ILUAs consist of both financial benefits and non-financial benefits packages.
The NIA states that the negotiations involved extensive engagement with the Traditional Owners, in addition to the SKA’s program of engagement with Indigenous and regional stakeholders.
There are many good reasons to ratify the Convention. It will ensure that Australia is a global leader in astronomy and fundamental physics and provide Australia with a research tool of the first rank. It will enable Australia to retain talented scientists and encourage Australians to consider careers in science. It will promote the development of high technology industries in Australia. Finally, the Convention is a powerful example of the benefits of international cooperation.
The Committee recommends the Convention be ratified.
The Committee supports the Convention Establishing the Square Kilometre Array Observatory and recommends that binding treaty action be taken.
Mr Dave Sharma MP