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International SKA Office Commences Award of Contracts for World’s Largest Radio Telescope

The international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) office awarded contracts to prepare for the world’s largest radio telescope yesterday, marking the start of the return on Australia and WA’s investment in the ambitious Square Kilometre Array.

Artist's impression of the low frequency portion of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA-low) which will be constructed in Australia. In the latter part of this decade, 250,000 of these person-height antennas will be built in Western Australia and observe the Universe at radio wavelengths. Image Credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions/ICRAR/U. Cambridge/ASTRON.

“This is a level of engagement only seen in revolutionary projects!”, said Professor Phil Diamond, Director General of the SKA Organisation. “That we have been able to pull together a team of some of the world’s best experts, most prestigious institutions and major companies reflects the passion and ambition of the scientific and engineering communities to work on an inspirational world-class project of the scale of the SKA.”

Consortia have been formed that will undertake preconstruction work for eleven different aspects of the world’s largest science experiment, work that has been valued together at $170 million. Australian industry and research institutes will participate in seven of the eleven work packages, with the Perth-based International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) directly involved in three.

“The astronomy community has moved into the next exciting phase of work towards the SKA,” said ICRAR Director Professor Peter Quinn. “ICRAR is very much an important part of the SKA Project and we can now start producing returns on WA’s investment in the telescope via our contributions to three key areas of work.”

ICRAR will collaborate with international colleagues in science and industry to help design the SKA’s Science Data Processor, as well as the Central Signal Processor and the Low Frequency Aperture Array for the part of the SKA that will be located entirely in Australia, SKA-low.

The Science Data Processor is the part of the SKA’s powerful computing, storage and network system that will process the terabytes of data per second produced by the SKA’s antennas into information ready for the world’s astronomers to use.

The Central Signal Processor is another, more specialised, computing system within the SKA that is used to combine the signals from the millions of SKA-low antennas into the format needed for the Science Data Processor.

Working with international colleagues, ICRAR will also be involved in the design and testing of the Christmas tree-like antennas that make up the most visible part of SKA-low.

Engineers from ICRAR’s Curtin University node will draw on their extensive experience with the construction and operation of the Curtin-led Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), the SKA-low precursor telescope located near the Australian SKA site.

As well as leading the task of verifying SKA-low’s key electronic systems, ICRAR leads the specialised infrastructure work for SKA-low, such as solar power, signal transport and custom building design, and is collaborating with local and international industry to roll out cost-effective solutions on the remote WA site.

Work on the site has already begun; a first stage test array of new-generation low frequency antennas is co-located with the MWA in the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. The test array has already produced images, and extensive measurements are underway to help finalise SKA antenna and systems designs.

“Curtin University staff will bring their unique experience with the Murchison Widefield Array and aperture array verification systems to their work on the Square Kilometre Array,” said Acting Curtin University Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling. “The Curtin team are internationally recognised for their expertise in end-to-end systems for radio astronomy, from antennas through to images.”

Experts from ICRAR’s ICT team at The University of Western Australia node will also draw on their experience with the MWA for their contribution to the SKA’s Science Data Processor.

Having designed and implemented the MWA’s data archiving system, the UWA-based team will base the SKA’s systems on their experience with the MWA and another major international telescope project, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile.

UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Johnson said that global players in the ICT world would work with UWA’s top scientists to help build the world-class telescope. “The Square Kilometre Array will produce more data than anything else on the planet, and UWA is playing a leading role in this fast-growing area of science – ‘Big Data’,” Professor Johnson said.

ICRAR’s work on the SKA Science Data Processor will build on existing industry relationships and collaborations with Australian organisations such as iVEC, who manage the Pawsey Centre for Supercomputing where the MWA’s data archive is based.

ICRAR is also managing an international collaboration working on the SKA Central Signal Processor for SKA-low. Staff at the Curtin University node will work with industry partners, including CISCO and NVIDIA, to develop software to combine signals from the millions of SKA-low antennas – software that will run on a specialised computer so powerful that it will be in the top ten on the planet next decade.

In September ICRAR was extended until 2019 with a $26M grant from the State Government of Western Australia. Earlier this year ICRAR was also successful in receiving almost $4M for the Low Frequency Aperture Array and almost $1M for the Central Signal Processor pre-construction work, both as part of a $19M SKA funding package from the Australian Federal Government.

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