UK to build brain of SKAO telescopes

Artist’s impression of the SKA-Low telescope in Australia, with dipole antennas in the foreground and dishes of the ASKAP radio telescope in the background

More than £15 million has been awarded to UK institutions which are delivering the crucial software ‘brain’ of the world’s largest radio telescope.

The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) is set to explore the evolution of the early universe.

It will delve into the role of some the earliest processes in fashioning galaxies like our own Milky Way, among many other science goals.

From its headquarters in the UK, the SKAO will oversee the delivery and operations of two cutting-edge, complementary arrays with:

  • 197 radio telescope dishes located in South Africa
  • more than 130,000 low-frequency antennas in Western Australia.

Thinking power behind the instruments

Underpinning these incredible instruments is the thinking power of its software system.

The system tells the telescopes where to look and when, diagnosing any issues and translating the telescope signals into useable data from which discoveries can be made.

The UK has already played a vital role in the software for the telescopes during the design phase.

The UK is now set to continue leading this area as the telescopes are constructed.

Outstanding scientists shaping the future

Science Minister George Freeman said:

It is no surprise that the UK’s outstanding scientists are playing such a vital role in shaping the future of this cutting-edge global observatory, backed by £15 million government funding.

As well as providing the foundation for new galaxy-level discoveries, this award will help to guarantee future contracts for UK industry, secure skilled jobs and develop a highly-transferrable technology in the UK, channelling more money back into the UK economy.

This reflects the incredible skill of our science community, who are working hand-in-hand with industry to ensure the UK continues to grow as a global science superpower.

Software central nervous system of SKAO

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has awarded more than £15 million to UK institutions to deliver the UK’s national contribution to software development during the construction project.

UK institutions include:

  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Manchester
  • University of Oxford
  • STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), Harwell Campus
  • STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory, Liverpool City Region
  • STFC’s Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), Edinburgh.

The SKAO headquarters is based at Jodrell Bank, near Manchester, and its expansion was co-funded by the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), through STFC.

The UK government, through STFC, is the largest contributor to the SKAO.

The government currently has a commitment to support 15% of the total cost of construction and initial operations from 2021 to 2030.

Leading role developing SKAO telescopes

Professor Mark Thomson, Executive Chair of STFC and member of the SKAO Council, said:

The UK continues to play a leading role in the SKAO and the development of its telescopes.

For any large scientific endeavour, the linchpin of its success lies in the infrastructure.

Without the power to process and organise the vast amounts of information these telescopes will gather, we could not make the important discoveries.

With the skills and expertise of our researchers and colleagues in industry, the UK will deliver the computing brain and nervous system of the telescopes to enable the observations and unlock the science.

Building the next generation of telescopes

The SKAO recently received from its member states the go-ahead to start its construction phase.

Construction is expected to be completed by the end of the decade, with the telescopes anticipated to operate for over 50 years.

As one of the largest scientific endeavours in history, the SKAO brings together more than 500 engineers and 1,000 scientists in more than 20 countries.

Searching the sky faster

The telescopes will be able to survey the sky much faster than existing radio telescopes, and so will require powerful computing to:

  • ingest and process in real time the expected data rate of 8 terabits of data per second
  • support the regional processing centres managing more than 700 petabytes a year.

At these challenging scales, high performance computing and software design are a cornerstone of the project.

Specialised cutting-edge software is being designed to control and monitor the telescope operations, and to allow detailed calibration and processing the huge amounts scientific data.

Working with industry

As well as utilising the expertise from UK’s research and academia, software development also relies on vital input from industry partners.

STFC’s Conrad Graham, UK project manager, said:

Involvement with the SKA project brings significant benefits for the UK, not just in terms of direct economic returns on investment, but also via innovation and technological spin offs, driven by the requirements of the project.

The award of new contracts will provide opportunities for UK industry to engage with the project across all areas of SKA software design.

As a result of the UK’s participation and the SKAO’s policy of fair work return, the UK is leading on seven high-value construction contracts, which will see the creation of significant new opportunities for UK industry.

Further information

More information on the UK work packages:

Science data processor and analysis software

Software developers and astronomers at University of Cambridge, STFC RAL Space and University of Oxford are leading the development of the science data processor and analysis software.

These are required to process the extreme rates of raw data from the SKA telescopes into science outputs.

The teams ensure the processor is robust, resilient, easy-to-use and interfaces seamlessly with the other software and hardware components of the SKA.

Observation preparation, design, and execution systems

The UK ATC is leading the development of the Observatory Science Operations systems as part of the Indian-led Observatory Monitoring and Control software package.

The team is building the observation preparation, design, and execution systems following the entire workflow from an observer proposing observations through to an operator scheduling and executing them on the telescope.

Monitor, control, and calibration subsystem

The UK is also leading on the design of a key component of the low-frequency telescope, known as the Monitor, Control, and Calibration Subsystem (MCCS).

MCCS performs control and monitoring of both the hardware and software components of the individual elements of the low-frequency telescope along with management and calibration of the observations.

The universities of Manchester and Oxford, alongside STFC’s Technology Department and Daresbury Laboratory, are part of the team.

The team is creating a fully tested system ready to go live as soon as the antennas come online.

Powerful and precise pulsar search subsystem

Astronomers and software engineers at the universities of Manchester and Oxford are leading the teams which are developing the powerful and precise pulsar search subsystem. This is for both the low and mid-frequency telescopes.

This software will enable the telescopes to be used to search thousands of positions on the sky at once to identify large numbers of new pulsars. It will effectively create a galaxy-scale gravitational wave detector.

Top image:  Artist’s impression of the SKA-Low telescope in Australia. These dipole antennas, which will number 131,072, will survey the radio sky in frequencies as low as 50Mhz. In the background are dishes of the ASKAP radio telescope, an SKA precursor (credit: SKAO).

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