Work starts on the world's largest radio telescope

Work starts on the world's largest radio telescope

Work starts this week on the next phase of development for what will soon be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope - the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project. The latest stage of the project will see the UK taking a major role in contributing to the overall final design of the world’s largest radio telescope. The SKA will revolutionise our understanding of the Universe by detecting radio waves with unprecedented sensitivity and image fidelity, helping answer key questions in astrophysics and astronomy, such as the role of dark energy and dark matter in our Universe, and possibly even one of mankind’s biggest questions: are we alone?

SKA will consist of thousands of dishes and literally millions of linked radio wave receptors located in Australia and in Southern Africa and their combined signals will create a telescope with a collecting area equivalent to a dish of about one square kilometre. SKA is now entering the detailed-design phase, in which detailed design work and concept selection will take place. During 2013 the SKA Organisation, which manages the global project from its offices at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, invited proposals from research organisations and industry partners for the design stage. As with other global research projects of this magnitude, such as the development of the Large Hadron Collider, the SKA has been broken down into various modules called ‘work packages’. Each of these will be managed by a consortium of international experts. The work packages range from developing the new dishes and other antennas for the telescope, through the immense computing and software systems, to the basic infrastructure needed to operate what will be one of the largest science facilities ever constructed.

For the UK the Universities of Manchester, Cambridge and Oxford are leading and taking major roles in a number of these consortia, alongside the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) laboratories and other UK academic and industry partners. The consortia the UK is leading on are Signal and Data Transport (SaDT), responsible for the design of data transport networks, and Science Data Processor (SDP) which will focus on what is needed to process the science data into useable science products.


Dr Keith Grainge, Deputy Lead of the Signal and Data Transport consortium, University of Manchester said, “The SKA will be an extraordinary project. The amount of data we need to transport from the antennas to the processors is equivalent to the entire World's internet traffic rate in 2011. In addition, we will need to synchronize the clocks at each antenna to a thousand-billionth (0.000,000,000,001) of a second. With the team of experts we have round the world, we are confident that we can meet these challenges and we are all looking forward to exploring some fascinating new areas of science with the telescope."

Professor Paul Alexander who leads the Science Data Processor consortium from the University of Cambridge added, “We are thrilled to be able to build on the decades of expertise we have in the University to contribute to this project, which is the exemplar ‘big data’ project of this generation.”

“After many years of planning and preparation it is very exciting that the SKA project is now moving in to the detailed design phase,” said Professor Michael Jones,principal investigator of SKA at the University of Oxford, and member of the consortia developing the low frequency aperture array antennae and the central signal processing facility. “In a few years this amazing scientific instrument will no longer be the stuff of dreams but will start to become a reality."

STFC is providing funding for the UK’s involvement in the project’s detailed design phase, enabling UK institutes, laboratories and industry to participate in the international work collaborations needed to progress SKA to construction readiness. STFC also provides funding to support operation of the SKA Project Headquarters. Support for UK activities is also being provided by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which identified SKA computing as a key theme in the Autumn Statement 2012 in the field of Big Data.

“Each element of the SKA is critical to the overall success of the project, and we certainly look forward to seeing the fruits of each consortium’s hard work shape up over the coming years”, said STFC Chief Executive Professor John Womersley, who chairs the SKA Board of Directors. “Now this multi-disciplinary team of experts has three full years to come up with the best technological solutions for the final design of the telescope, so we can start tendering for construction of the first phase in 2017 as planned. The Directors of the SKA Board feel that the consortia selected represent some of the world’s very finest scientists and engineers.”

Scientists and engineers from the UK and around the world, together with industry partners, are participating in the SKA project which is driving technology development in antennas, data transport, software and computing, and power. The influence of the SKA project extends beyond radio astronomy. The designs, construction and operation of the SKA have the potential to impact skills development, employment and economic growth in science, engineering and associated industries, not only in the host countries but in all partner countries.

STFC’s laboratories are involved in several of the critical work packages. Engineers at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory will be involved in the Central Signal Processor work package, while staff expertise and infrastructure access at STFC Scientific Computing and the Hartree Centre will play a key role in the Science Data Processor activity. The UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC), part of STFC and the UK’s national centre for astronomical technology, will lead one of the critical elements of the Telescope Manager activity. This will build on more than a decade of experience in developing software for observation preparation, telescope control and operation, most recently for the ALMA telescope array in Chile. Members of the Systems Engineering group at UKATC are involved in the Central Signal Processor work package and will be in Canada later in the week at the kick-off meeting for this activity.