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Groundwork laid for world’s largest radio telescope: the Square Kilometre Array

Main image: An artist’s impression of the future Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in Australia. Up to 132,000 low frequency antennas (resembling metal Christmas trees) will be built. (Image: CSIRO)

Designs for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) facility in Western Australia received the tick of approval this week during its critical design review, and can now move on to the final steps before construction starts in 2020.

Once completed, the multi-billion dollar SKA project will probe the corners of the universe to expand our understanding of its origins — and it will do so hundreds of times faster and in more detail than any existing facility.

Laying the groundwork

Australia’s Square Kilometre Array will be a web of more than 130,000 low-frequency antennas located in the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia (South Africa will host the other SKA facility).

The SKA’s success hinges on signals from thousands of antennas spread over many kilometres aligning with extreme precision. Infrastructure Australia Project Manager and Aurecon telecommunications infrastructure engineer Rebecca Wheadon said many of the challenges in ensuring this stem from the vastness and remote location of the site.

“We are working out in the middle of the desert, and we need to protect the radio quiet nature of the site,” Wheadon said.

“There’s a significant amount of engineering smarts that go into achieving that.”

For completion of this most recent phase, engineers were tasked with designing onsite support infrastructure, including a low central processing facility (CPF), a 1500-square-metre supercomputing centre.

“The CPF building is effectively a fully welded box within a box; all of the computing equipment goes within the inner shield of the building, with specially designed RFI [radio frequency interference] doors to ensure we do not pollute the air with RFI,” Wheadon said.

Square Kilometre Array

Artist’s impression of the supercomputing facility for the future Square Kilometre Array – the world’s largest radio telescope. (Image: Aurecon)

This includes any emissions from cooling equipment, pumps and lights. Hundreds of kilometres of access tracks and trenching for power supply and cables are also required to connect the sprawling network.

“Data flows will be on the scale of petabits, or a million billion bits, per second — more than the global internet rate today, all flowing into a single building in the Murchison,” said CSIRO’s SKA Infrastructure Consortium Director Antony Schinckel in a statement.

“To get this data from the antennas to the telescope’s custom supercomputing facilities, we need to lay 65,000 fibre optic cables.”

Coming into focus

Senior Electrical Engineer James Massoud, also from Aurecon, likened the electrical fitout to a “scaled-down version” of the east-coast transmission network, with long distances between demand centres and generation points.

“The scale of the site led to a significant electrical power distribution network, characterised as a long, low-density network,” said Massoud, who served as the power distribution lead engineer for the Infrastructure Australia consortium.

The team also had to “look back in time for mechanical or analogue ways of doing things”, he said, as digital technologies would disturb the radio quietness of the site.

The Murchison region, about 800 km north of Perth, has a legislated quiet zone of up to 260 km to limit interference. Keeping the ‘noise’ to a minimum is important, as the SKA antennas will be receiving extremely weak signals from the far reaches of the universe. Experts including CSIRO principal engineer and RFI specialist Carol Wilson advised on how to prevent the faint signals from being drowned out by the sites own equipment, like the CPF.

“One of the challenges is that the infrastructure equipment is not well characterised in terms of radio emissions, unlike radiocommunications equipment where the frequency power level and other technical qualifications are clearly identified,” she said.

Square Kilometre Array

Some of the SKA team, from left: Antony Schinckel, CSIRO; SKA Infrastructure Consortium Director, Rebecca Wheadon Aurecon; SKA Infrastructure Australia Project Manager, David Luchetti; and Australian SKA Director Shandip Abeywickrema, Aurecon Senior Project Engineer. (Image: CSIRO)

This milestone is the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of work by an Infrastructure Australia industry partnership comprising experts from CSIRO and Aurecon.

Although the SKA project will physically reside in Australia and South Africa, in all more than 12 international engineering consortia, representing 500 engineers and scientists from 20 countries, are contributing to the telescope’s design, construction and eventual operation.

A critical design review for the entire SKA system will take place later this year or early next year, and construction is set to begin in 2020.

– Rachael Brown

This article was originally published by create digital as “Engineers lay the groundwork for the world’s largest radio telescope: the Square Kilometre Array”.

Introducing the world’s largest radio telescope

Featured image: A computer generated image of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope dish antennas in South Africa. Credit: SKA Project Office.

What is dark matter? What did the universe look like when the first galaxies formed? Is there other life out there? These are just some of the mysteries that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will aim to solve.

Covering an area equivalent to around one million square metres, or one square kilometre, SKA will comprise of hundreds of thousands of radio antennas in the Karoo desert, South Africa and the Murchison region, Western Australia.

The multi-billion dollar array will be 10 times more sensitive and significantly faster at surveying galaxies than any current radio telescope.

The massive flow of data from the telescope will be processed by supercomputing facilities that have one trillion times the computing power of those that landed men on the Moon.

Phase 1 of SKA’s construction will commence in 2018. The construction will be a collaboration of 500 engineers from 20 different countries around the world.

– Gemma Conroy

Cloud collaboration

Featured image above: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) by SKA Organisation

Cloud services – internet resources available on demand – have created a powerful computing environment, with big customers like the US Government and NASA driving developments in data and processing.

When building the infrastructure to support the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), soon to be the world’s biggest radio telescope, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) benefitted from some heavyweight cloud computing experience.

ICRAR’s executive director, Professor Peter Quinn, says the centre approached cloud computing services company Amazon Web Services (AWS) to assess whether it could process the data from the SKA.

When operational in 2024, the SKA will generate data rates in excess of the entire world’s internet traffic.

Cloud collaboration
An artist’s impression of the Square Kilometre Array’s antennas in Australia. © SKA Organisation

ICRAR used an international consortium of astronomers to conduct a survey with the Janksy-VLA telescope, employing AWS to process the data, and they are now trying to determine how the services will work with a larger system.

Head of ICRAR’s Data Intensive Astronomy team, Professor Andreas Wicenec, says there are many options from AWS.

“Things are changing quickly – if you do something today, it might be different next week.”

Quinn says cloud systems assist international collaboration by providing all researchers with access to the same data and software. They’re also cost-effective, offering on-demand computing resources where researchers pay for what they use.

– Laura Boness



Asia alliance key to the SKA telescope

A mammoth telescope comprising millions of antennas across Western Australia and Africa, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will help astronomers tackle some of the big unanswered questions of the universe.

The complex ‘brain’ behind it all is “a system of systems”, says Kevin Vinsen, a University of Western Australia specialist in astroinformatics at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Perth.

Vast quantities of data from the telescope, due for completion in 2024, will necessitate heavy-duty computing infrastructure. The output from the Australian part alone, located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory 800 km north of Perth, will exceed a day’s Australian Internet traffic in less than 20 minutes. 

The ‘brain’, called the Science Data Processor (SDP), will manage the capture of raw data at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth and the processing and archiving of this data into a form that astronomers around the world can access.

“The main goal of the SDP is to bridge the gap between the telescope and the science,” says Vinsen’s colleague, ICRAR engineer Associate Professor Chen Wu.

ICRAR is part of the international collaboration designing the SDP – itself a multifaceted collection of hardware and software. Split into 10 work packages, the huge project is managed by 21 partners in 18 time zones with a total budget of $48.3 million. ICRAR is leading the Data Layer Work Package that will develop systems to manage the flow and storage of the telescope data.

Industrial joint-funders, such as IBM, Cisco and NVIDIA, have been involved since the project’s conception. Commercialisation of SKA technology is expected to flow naturally from the arrangement.

“There will be a significant return to industry, come what may,” says ICRAR director Professor Peter Quinn.

Embed) another ASKAP dish

The SDP project, and Data Layer in particular, involves collaboration with a Chinese collective of universities, research institutes and a company. Two such partners are Tsinghua University in Beijing, who are working on data storage, and Inspur in Guangzhou, a contractor for Tianhe-2, the world’s most powerful supercomputer.

Collaboration on the SDP is part of wider investment by China in the SKA and radio astronomy in general. In a separate project, nestled in a natural bowl of limestone in the Guizhou Province in southern China, the largest single-dish telescope in the world is under construction. The Five hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) is due for completion in 2016.

The FAST design was an SKA candidate that missed out, but still promises to be a powerful telescope. ICRAR is working with the Chinese institutions involved in FAST to learn from their experiences.

“We are particularly interested in working with the Chinese on FAST because of its enormous scientific potential, but also as a precursor to the SKA technology,” says Quinn.


[Feature image caption] Dave Pallot, Professor Andreas Wicenec and Associate Professor Chen Wu are on ICRAR’s data archiving team.

 — Jude Dineley