NEC4 adopted for €2bn radio telescopes: the world’s biggest

NEC4 adopted for €2bn radio telescopes: the world’s biggest
NEC4 contracts have been selected to deliver the world’s largest radio telescope observatory. Over 70 tier 1 NEC4 contracts will be let to design, build and operate the €2 billion (£1.7 billion) Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) at sites in Australia and South Africa, which will begin early operations by 2025.

The first six of some 25 NEC4 Framework Contracts for software development were approved in July 2021, with the remainder due to follow during the next few months. Over 150 software developers are expected to be engaged on the frameworks under NEC Professional Service Short Contracts (PSSC).

Three NEC4 Professional Service Contracts (PSC) for construction support in Australia and South Africa were also let to local consultants in August 2021. A NEC4 Design Build and Operate (DBO) contract for a major site camp in Australia and a series of NEC4 Engineering and Construction Contracts (ECC) for significant infrastructure works will be let this autumn, followed by key ECC contracts for telescope hardware in early 2022.

One observatory, two telescopes

The unprecedented astronomical observatory is the result is a long-term collaboration of 16 countries. It is being delivered by SKAO, a recently created intergovernmental organisation based at Jodrell Bank near Manchester, UK.

The observatory will consist of two vast radio telescope arrays with a combined area of around one square kilometre. It will initially comprise 197 mid-frequency 15 m diameter dishes in the Karoo region, South Africa (including 64 already built for the MeerKAT telescope) and 131,072 low-frequency antennas at 512 stations in Murchison, Western Australia. Both arrays can be expanded in the future.

Each site will require a super-computer around 25% more powerful than anything built to date, and data flow rates between them will be 100,000 times faster than average broadband speed. The SKA telescopes will enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and much faster than any existing state-of-the-art telescopes.

Strong focus on collaboration

Head of procurement Ian Hastings says NEC4 was chosen as it aligned with SKAO’s culture and values, which include a strong focus on collaboration. ‘The NEC4 suite lends itself extremely well to an international mega-science project, providing grounded flexible contracting solutions based on commercial fairness and a process-driven approach. They are also already being used in South Africa and Australia.’

He says SKAO has allocated most of the 70-plus NEC4 contracts to specific member countries but has not specified vendors. ‘While there will be no international competition, we hope to encourage a competitive procurement environment in each country wherever possible.

We have already carried out contract readiness reviews for the infrastructure ECC contracts and expressions of interest have been initiated. This will enable us to start building a functional subset of the full array as soon as possible to make sure each one works, and then build outwards from those.’

Site construction directors Tracy Cheetham and Antony Schinckel were appointed in June 2021 to lead construction activities in South Africa and Australia respectively on behalf of programme director Joe McMullin. More construction staff will be recruited for both sites in the coming months.

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