SKA Matters

There’s been quite a lot going on recently to do with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), some of it scientific and some of it political, some of it good and some of it bad. At least those seem to me to be the appropriate descriptions.

First the scientific good news is the the SKA Board has decided which of the planned components of SKA should be constructed during the first phase, which has a budget of around €650M. Details can be found here but, in a nutshell, it seems that the SKA Survey Telescope, which was to be built around the existing pathfinder project ASKAP located in Australia is not going to be built in the first phase. This implies the low-frequency bit of SKA will be in Australia while the higher-frequency activities will be concentrated in South Africa. That seems a pragmatic decision to me based on the budgetary constraints and should lead to a lot of good science being done. At the very least it’s a clear decision.

This positive news has however been overshadowed by an unseemly spat over the choice of headquarters over the location of the SKA Headquarters which has culminated in a rather unhelpful story in Nature. SKA HQ has been temporarily housed at Jodrell Bank Observatory (in the Midlands) since 2012 and there are clearly some who would like it to be located there permanently. There is however a rival bid, from the historic Italian city of Padova, at whose university Galileo Galilei once lectured, and which remains one of the top universities in Italy.

I should put my cards on the table and say that I’ve enjoyed many visits to Padova in my career, starting when I was a PhD student back in the 1980s and have many fond memories of the place. The late co-author of my cosmology textbook, Francesco Lucchin was Director of the Department of Astronomy in Padova at that time. For many years Padova has been home to a large concentration of astronomers and is undoubtedly a centre of excellence. Moreover it is a city that is very well served by transport links, just a short distance from Venice so easily reachable by air, and also on a major railway line offering fast national and international services. It’s also a considerably better place to dine out than Jodrell Bank!


Padova’s astronomers are housed in the Castello Carrese which adjoins the Specola (above), a tower which was once a working astronomical observatory but, being right in the city centre, has not been useful for such purposes for many moons. When I first started going to Padova the Department of Astronomy was located in the tower and in some nearby buildings but the rest of the Castello Carrese was used as a prison. Now it’s been renovated and all the astronomers have been located there. I remember the frequent walks across the little bridge over the canal to a coffee bar where we often did some of our best research!

Given its strategically important location, Padova was bombed by Allied planes on a number of occasions in 1944 and 1945. My Italian colleagues would regularly draw my attention to the plaque near the entrance to the Specola pointing out that it was hit and badly damaged by Allied bombs during one raid.

Anyway I can certainly see the merits of locating SKA HQ in Padova but it’s not my decision to make. Those responsible have not yet made a final decision, but what’s sad is that a number of stories have been flying around in the media that imply that the UK is trying to exert undue political interference to stop SKA HQ being moved to Italy. Whether this is true or not I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned the powers that be are following proper process and that process has not yet been brought to a conclusion. Whatever the outcome, though, there’s no question that the language being used in the press coverage is very damaging. Let’s hope it can all be resolved amicably.

Now for a spot of lunch and then up to the Royal Astronomical Society where the topic of the Discussion Meeting is, somewhat ironically, Building an Open UK SKA-Science Consortium…

5 Responses to “SKA Matters”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “It’s also a considerably better place to dine out than Jodrell Bank!”

    While I have fond memories of Jodrell Bank, even of dining out there (The Frozen Mop, The Black Swan, The Crown, The Bird in Hand, The Merlin), I do have to admit that Italy might have the edge here. 😐

    On the other hand, Jodrell Bank is quite important in recent radio-astronomy history. Now that the academic staff has moved into Manchester (just a few years after the in-town staff had moved out to Jodrell Bank), if SKA leaves Jodrell then Jodrell Bank as a radio-astronomy observatory would probably die off completely in a few years. That would be sad.

    Most optical observatories, due to the influence of light pollution and the need for a higher and drier location, have experienced this already. Even if the buildings still exist, the spirit is gone.

  2. In the past few years activity at Jodrell Bank has picked up considerably. Undergraduate students go there for their lab, technology research is based there, and of course the telescopes are working so quite a few astronomers are there. Add 160,000 visitors each year and it is much livelier place than it was a few years ago. You should tryto visit it again! By the way, does Padova have a curry mile?

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      I was last there in 2010, when I was visiting Ian Browne. We found Andrew in Alan Pedlar’s old office observing some pulsars, and a technician or two, but it was rather deserted otherwise. I’m happy to hear that activity has picked up. To what extent is this new lease on life due to the temporary SKA headquarters?

      Even if the technologists and students are there, I still like the idea of having everyone from theoreticians to those with climbing permission under one roof!

      I doubt Padova has a curry mile, but does it need one? 🙂 When visiting the main buildings of the University of Manchester, I often drive down to the curry mile and take a right since one can park for free on the street in the residential area.

      As usual, this year I’ll be back in Blighty in August, but my schedule is rather full. I’ll try to make it back to Jodrell in 2016.

    • telescoper Says:

      No curry mile that I’m aware of but, for the record, my favoutite restaurant in Padova in the old days was the Osteria dei Fabbri. It’s still around, but I haven’t been there for over a decade so can’t vouch for it…

  3. Despite the prospect of less Italian food as a result, I’m a bit surprised that you haven’t commented on the fact that the permanent SKA headquarters will be at Jodrell Bank.

    Actually, Italy and England aren’t all that different. When I was working at Jodrell Bank, a German colleague working in Italy who had never been to England asked me what to expect. “Just like Italy, except without the good food and without the good weather”. After a couple of days in Cheshire, he agreed with my assessment. 😐

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