CSIRO and Wajarri people collaborate to get the construction of massive SKA telescope underway

From Jacinta Bowler in Western Australia

MURCHISON, outback WA: Finding the best places to install the “Christmas Trees” of the Square Kilometre Array in outback WA required scientists and Indigenous owners to walk hundreds of kilometres together.

“CSIRO people walked 400 kilometres around this site to figure out where to place these antennas in a way that was appropriate to culture,” Elanor Huntington, the Executive Director of Digital, National Facilities & Collections at CSIRO told Cosmos.

“Quite literally, the physical design and the physical layout of this telescope is a collaboration between Western and Wajarri ways of knowing and ways of understanding things.”

The name ‘Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara’ means ‘sharing the sky and stars’.

Ska low artist's impression of aerial view
An artist’s imnpression of SKA-LOW stations and track. Credit: DISR

Science and Industry Minister Ed Husic announced more than $200 million worth of contracts for construction on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)-Low project at an event to celebrate ‘breaking ground’ at the site.

In hot desert weather, Husic was joined by the WA Premier’s Parliamentary Secretary Sabine Winton, SKAO Director-General Professor Philip Diamond, and representatives of the Wajarri Yamaji as part of the event.

“It took seven years to get to today, and I think a lot of people appreciate them taking the right steps,” Gail Simpson, a Wajarri Yamaji who was at the event told Cosmos.

“Managing the unprecedented volumes of data collected by the Australian SKA telescope will create commercial opportunities beyond astronomy and will lead to the development of technologies and processes that will apply across Australian industry,” Husic said.

Read more: Construction begins on Australia’s Square Kilometre Array

“It’s expected to attract an estimated $1.6 billion in foreign income flows to Australia in the first 30 years.”

The SKA Observatory had been working with traditional owners over the past seven years to come to an agreement on land use of the project, which will stretch 74 kilometres across the landscape at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.

Representatives of the Wajarri Yamaji attended an event with Science and Industry Minister Ed Husic, WA Premier’s Parliamentary Secretary Sabine Winton and SKAO Director-General Professor Philip Diamond. Credit: Jacinta Bowler

Although the SKA project has already been in the works for 30 years, there’s still significant work to be done before science can begin to happen at SKA-Low.

Diamond tells Cosmos that construction itself will begin in February. In 2024 six ‘stations’ or groups of antennas will in place and testing can begin.

The end of construction isn’t likely to happen until 2028.

“Each step I think is cause for excitement,” he says. “This is the SKA observatory here, now. We have our team, our offices in Australia – in Perth and Geraldton. And very soon, we’re going to be firmly established here on site. It feels different.”

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