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Switzerland’s EPFL Joins SKA Organisation

An artist’s impression of the SKA at night

The Swiss science and technology university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has become the 14th member of the Square Kilometre Array Organisation (SKAO) following a unanimous decision by the SKA Board of Directors.

EPFL will be the lead institution coordinating involvement in the SKA on behalf of the Swiss academic community*.

“I am delighted to welcome EPFL to the SKA Organisation as our newest member,” said Chair of the SKA Board of Directors Dr Catherine Cesarsky. “This renowned research institution and its partners have brought valuable expertise to the SKA, and we look forward to working ever more closely with our Swiss colleagues as we enter this exciting phase of the project, completing the very last steps before construction.”

At a national level, Switzerland has held observer status within the Organisation since 2016, with many Swiss research institutions and many industry partners contributing to various aspects of the SKA. The country has a history of world-class research and development in science and astronomy, including leading the recent CHEOPS mission to study exoplanets, developing world-leading instrumentation for the ESO telescopes in Chile, and being one of the hosts of the major international particle physics infrastructure CERN.

Scientists at Swiss institutions are active in eight of the SKA’s science working groups, including those focusing on galaxy evolution, cosmology and cosmic magnetism.

“This new high-performance radio telescope will open a new view of the whole Universe,” said Prof. Jean-Paul Kneib of EPFL, who is leading the consortium of Swiss scientists interested in the SKA. “SKA will allow us to address some key questions on our Universe, such as the nature of the dark matter and the dark energy, or explore the Cosmic Dawn, the period of time when the first stars and first galaxies formed.”

The white paper Swiss Interests and Contribution to the SKA, published in February 2020, outlines the extensive Swiss involvement in SKA-related science and technology, and highlights national interest in contributing research and development in the fields of distributed radio frequency systems, high performance computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence. It also notes Swiss industry expertise in data processing, system control and supervision, antennas and radio receivers and precise time management through the use of maser atomic clocks.

Annual Swiss SKA Days are now in their fifth year, bringing together national and international representatives of academia, industry and government, showcasing the breadth of opportunities for Swiss institutions and companies to be involved in the SKA. The location rotates each year to reflect the various contributions of different Swiss institutions. The next Swiss SKA day is due to be held at the University of Zurich later this year.

EPFL is now a member of the SKAO, which has been responsible for overseeing the telescope design phase, until the process of transitioning into the SKA Observatory is completed. The Observatory is due to come into being in 2020. Switzerland’s Federal Council recently triggered the first political debate in parliament regarding the possible participation of Switzerland as a member state in the future.

“As the dream of building SKA is about to become a reality, the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI), welcomes and supports the EPFL decision to join the SKA Organisation as a special member. The accession of the EPFL will benefit to the Swiss scientific community as a whole and will open business perspectives to Swiss companies,” said Xavier Reymond, Deputy Director General for International Research Organisations at SERI, who is in charge of the relationship between Switzerland and SKAO.

“Switzerland is the proud Seat of CERN and a dedicated member of the European Southern Observatory and of the European Space Agency. Therefore, we all look forward to assessing the opportunity to complement these intergovernmental endeavours with the upcoming SKA Observatory, which shares the same dedication to better understanding the Universe.”

SKA Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond also welcomed EPFL to the SKAO, noting the importance of the country’s involvement so far. “Swiss institutions have been a vital part of the SKA’s design phase and bring with them a well-deserved reputation for excellence in science and astronomy, as well as being involved with some of today’s most exciting projects,” he said.

“As we move ever closer to SKA construction, EPFL’s membership serves to highlight the broad range of expertise that the SKA can count upon in this next phase.”

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with eventually over a square kilometre (one million square metres) of collecting area. The scale of the SKA represents a huge leap forward in both engineering and research & development towards building and delivering a unique instrument, with the detailed design and preparation now well under way. As one of the largest scientific endeavours in history, the SKA will bring together a wealth of the world’s finest scientists, engineers and policy makers to bring the project to fruition.

*The Swiss Academic Community includes Universities of Geneva, Zurich, Bern, ETHZ, CSCS, FHNW, HES-SO, and Verkehrshaus Lucern

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