Spring 2023 SKA-Low update

We’ve seen exciting progress being made at the SKA-Low telescope site over the past three months. We also just hosted the SKAO Council visit, more of which can be read about in this edition’s special feature.

Sun rises over a red landscape. a clear area in the foreground has buildings and cars.
The temporary ‘fly camp’ officially opened in September. Credit: SKAO
The temporary SKA-Low ‘fly camp’ at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory officially opened in September

Infrastructure milestone

September saw the first SKA-Low telescope-related infrastructure pop up at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.

A temporary ‘fly camp’ was officially opened on 6 September, providing temporary accommodation for staff, contractors and visitors while construction of the permanent 200-bed construction camp progresses. The 103-bed facility has a large dining room, recreation room and gym.

Deployment of the permanent construction camp is well underway, with all accommodation buildings on site, as well as kitchen, first aid and locker rooms. More modules, along with the remaining infrastructure including water treatment, are still to be delivered.

The official opening of the fly camp was accompanied by the first earthworks that will service the antenna arrays that make up the first six of the SKA-Low telescope antenna stations  ̶- each station is a circular group of 256 antennas.

Significant clearing, trenching and backfilling work has been done at these first six antenna stations, in preparation for laying power and fibre optic cable.

The clearing works were performed by Wajarri Holdings, a Wajarri-owned and operated business subcontracted to Ventia. This important infrastructure milestone was marked by an on-site event led by Ventia and supported by SKAO. The event, held at Boordalla Well, included speeches from key project leaders, an official ribbon-cutting with all staff and contractors, and a morning tea. Invited guests included representatives from SKAO, Ventia, CSIRO, Wajarri Holdings, Wajarri Yamaji Aboriginal Corporation, Wajarri Enterprises Limited, Aurecon and on-site subcontractors.

Three people sit around a table in hi vis shirts. One woman smiles out at us.
SKA-Low Telescope Director Dr Sarah Pearce enjoying the ‘fly camp’ facilities. Credit: SKAO

AAVS3 completed

The SKAO team in Australia has now finalised the installation of the final prototype SKA-Low antenna station, AAVS3 (Aperture Array Verification System 3). AAVS3 is a significant evolution from previous SKA-Low technology demonstrators and will be the first instrument owned, operated and maintained by SKAO staff in Australia. The station was deployed between May and September, from the first antennas deployed to the connection of power and fibre cables for the SMART boxes.

Now, we’re happy to report that a momentous milestone for the SKA-Low project has been achieved: first light for AAVS3!

First light is the term used for the first data or image captured by a telescope. In late October the team, made up of people from SKAO, CSIRO, INAF, MWA and Curtin University, captured 45 minutes of data with AAVS3 during the Sun’s transit across the sky.

After calibrating the data, first light was achieved, with an image of the sky being generated. 

It shows the arcing pale band of the Milky Way’s galactic plane, with the brighter spots of the Centaurus A galaxy and our Sun on the right of the picture.

The significance of this image is the validation that the station is working as expecting and is extremely encouraging for the performance of the full array.

The first image generated by AAVS3 – the prototype array of the SKA-Low telescope – captured many details of the sky. The strong band of the Milky Way is visible in a curve across the centre.

 Safety and environment activities

Many important administrative activities relating to health, safety and environment continue to take place for the SKA-Low team. In September, the first Western Spiny-tailed Skink survey program took place, with SKA-Low staff accompanying a fauna specialist as they searched for evidence of the vulnerable species. No evidence was found, and the first clearing permit was issued for clearing work associated with the first six SKA-Low stations. A small number of SKA-Low staff in Australia have since been approved as fauna specialists to lead future surveys.

Over the next few months, the team’s focus will be on completing the 200-bed construction camp, and continuing work in preparation for the initial telescope stations.

Ant Schinckel, SKA-Low Construction Director, SKAO