SKA inches closer to delving into the big bang

Still long road to go before world's largest radio telescope helps usher in petabyte era for science

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope. (Credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions/SKA Program Development Office)

Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope. (Credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions/SKA Program Development Office)

The construction of the world’s largest radio telescope has moved a step closer, with the Australian government late last month calling for bids for design and engineering work for the €1.5 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The government will also help Australian organisations seeking to submit bids by providing financial support through the $18.8 million SKA pre-construction grants program.

The work is worth around A$114 million and is a precursor to construction work beginning in 2016.

When the SKA comes online, it will gather immense amounts of data that will need to be processed by petascale supercomputers.

But 22 years after the project was initially floated in 1991, there is still considerable work to be done.

Brian Boyle, acting Australian SKA director, has been involved with the SKA since 2003 when he was appointed director of the Australian Telescope National Facility in the CSIRO.

He is currently working on the government side of the project and design work. He is also putting together funding and procurement models for the construction phase of the SKA and the long-term operational phase of the project.

The design phase, which Boyle says is around 10 per cent of the entire project, includes designing antennas and receivers, site design and associated infrastructure, such as roads and power supply to both the South African and Australian sites.

“It’s going to be pretty complex [and] it’s going to be very challenging. There’s going to be a lot of intellectual property going to be developed to construct antennas, receiver systems and in the computing and software area in particular in terms of developing the algorithms that can process the vast amounts of data that the SKA will produce,” Boyle says.

The SKA will be developed across three phases, with the €400 million first phase to be shared between the Australia-New Zealand consortium and South Africa.

Australia’s component of the project will include building around 60 dishes with array feed technology. These dishes will work in conjunction with the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and low frequency antennas. This will enable scientists to research the cosmic dark ages before galaxies and stars were born – the big bang – and look at how they were formed.

Rivalries set aside for collaboration

The worldwide competition to host the SKA began in 2006 when the Australia-New Zealand consortium and South Africa were shortlisted as contenders as host countries.

In March 2012, it seemed as though South Africa had the upper hand when a scientific panel narrowly recommended the country’s bid.

The following month the the first general meeting of the SKA Organisation established a science working group to examine site options for the SKA, which was welcomed by the Australian government.

Initially, just one country was going to be appointed as sole host of the entire SKA. However, in May Australia-New Zealand and South Africa were announced as joint hosts.

South Africa claimed it was “disappointed” with the decision and said “we should emphasise that we did get the majority of ... one of the largest scientific instruments in the world.”

But that rivalry has now been set aside. Boyle says both sides are facing similar challenges and are collaborating to achieve solutions and ensure there are common operating systems between the telescopes.

“We’re sharing a lot in terms of joint science programs between respective pathfinders and both of us are very interested in the long-term sustainability of the telescope in our respective nations,” Boyle says.

“It’s in both of our interests for the SKA to perform as well as it possibly can.”

There are now 10 member countries involved in the SKA besides Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – Canada, China, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. India is also an associate member of the organisation.

Boyle says discussions are currently taking place on how each country will contribute to the project financially and with research expertise. He says a framework should be in place by the middle of this year.

“We’re pretty much looking at what the return is from the SKA to all the various countries participating. As we go through the different phases, that return will be different,” Boyle says.

“During the design phase … the return on investment will come through the intellectual property and the developed part of the design of the various system elements…

“The construction phase and [its] return on investment will be very much through construction contracts and then into the operational stage the return will be also be through the operational side.”

Other countries will also need to join the SKA project further down the track, according to Boyle, in order to provide further funding for the construction and operation of the telescopes.

In particular, he has his eye on the US, but other countries that may join the endeavour could include South Korea, Japan, France and other European countries.

“Frankly, it brings more brain power – intellectual power – to the table and it’s sharing and leveraging that intellectual property around the globe. That is perhaps one of the most exciting things about this project, because it truly is a global project,” Boyle says.

Boyle says the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the US has expressed interest in being involved in the design of the telescopes. However, the National Science Foundation, a US federal agency, has indicated the SKA is not a priority project and is not looking to provide financial assistance in the near term, according to Boyle.

Australia-New Zealand’s progress

The $160 million Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory was completed in June last year and opened in October. It is a precursor project to the SKA.

ASKAP includes 36 radio telescope antenna which will ‘listen’ to radio waves from the universe, including mapping all the black holes in the universe.

The $51 million Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) will also be part of the final SKA. It has already started collecting preliminary data following its completion in November last year. The telescope will be the first of three SKA precursor projects to be fully operational, with observations expected to begin early next year.

Over the next 12 months, Boyle says he expects challenges around unifying the engineering framework across the sites in Australia and South Africa.

“I think the greatest challenge is because we’re building it in a global sense from teams around the world. [We need] to ensure that we have the same engineering standards and approach towards operability and the reliability of the system across all the different system components,” he says.

Eventually, Boyle says the SKA will change the face of the radio astronomy community.

“I think it will revolutionise our entire astronomy community. We’ve already seen a large number of young people being brought into astronomy to exploit the Australian SKA Pathfinder and Murchison Wide Field Array result. That for me is perhaps the most exciting thing,” he says.

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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