First design project for world's largest telescope completed

6 August 2018

The first design project for what will soon be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – has been completed.

After four and a half years, the international Telescope Manager (TM) consortium has formally concluded its work on the architectural design of a fundamental part of the software for the Square Kilometre Array: the nervous system of the Observatory, which is called the Telescope Manager.

Formed in November 2013, the consortium was tasked with designing the crucial software that will control, monitor and operate the SKA telescopes. STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC), the UK’s national centre for astronomical technology, has been leading one of the critical elements of the Telescope Manager activity.

“STFC has been leading the observation management part of the software,” STFC’s Alan Bridger, who is leading the team at UKATC explains.

“Observation management is a really critical part because it is what makes the science work in the SKA system. It takes the scientific goals and turns them into something that the SKA system can work with and then takes data which can be used and analysed by scientific users and staff at SKA.”

Mark Nicol, STFC software engineer who is also working on the project added, “The easy analogy is to compare it to the brains of the telescope, but it’s maybe better to think of it as a football coach: it prepares all the elements of the telescope before the observation starts, makes sure they have all the information they need and then whilst the observations are being taken the telescope manager is sitting there passing on information, dealing with any problems that come up and handling any substitutions.”

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. It 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?

STFC provides 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.

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.


Background

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 was broken down into various modules called ‘work packages’. Each of these are 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.


The UK and SKA

The SKA will be the next generation radio telescope array, with a transformational impact. It was originally conceived as a “Hydrogen Pulsar” telescope, but it will provide a sea change in most areas of astronomy. Early science is scheduled to begin in 2020. The UK is contributing £100 million, representing about 18-19% of the project, to the construction of the instrument and STFC represents the UK as part of the SKA consortium.


About the SKA

The SKA is not a single telescope, but a collection of telescopes or instruments, called an array, to be spread over long distances. The SKA is to be constructed in two phases: Phase 1 (called SKA1) in South Africa and Australia; Phase 2 (called SKA2) expanding into other African countries, with the component in Australia also being expanded.

Already supported by 12 member countries – Australia, Canada, China, France, India, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom – SKA Organisation has brought together some of the world’s finest scientists, engineers and policy makers and more than 100 companies and research institutions across 20 countries in the design and development of the telescope.

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