Australia’s SKA Push

Artist impression of the SKA dishes. Image: SPDO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions.

With a momentous decision imminent on whether Australia will become home to the world’s biggest telescope, the federal government has stepped up its last-minute lobbying. Australia and New Zealand are competing against a consortium of nine African countries, led by South Africa, to host the $2 billion Square Kilometre Array, one of the most ambitious scientific projects yet conceived.

The giant radio telescope, with it 3000 antennae, will be so sensitive it would be able to detect an aircraft radar 50 light years away. This week the Minister for Science, Chris Evans, will lead a delegation to China and Italy, two members of the international organisation that is due to make the final decision by April. Senator Evans said he would stress that Australia not only had the best site – the radio-quiet Shire of Murchison in the West Australian desert – in which to locate the telescope’s central core, but Australia’s stable society and economy and scientific expertise could also provide confidence to the countries investing in the project.

This week an independent committee of scientific experts will recommend a preferred site to the Square Kilometre Array board of directors. Some scientists are concerned that politics, rather than astronomy, could sway a tough choice Africa’s way. Senator Evans said member countries would consider a range of factors, and in Europe there was ”a great deal of sympathy” for providing more assistance and development aid to South Africa. ”We think we’ve got the better bid,” he said. The government has spent more than $250 million on the bid.

An announcement on Australia’s bid for the SKA − a continent-wide Australasian project with radio telescope sites that that extend to New Zealand − is expected to be made by the international SKA Board in London in April. (SMHCom)


Big Questions Need A Big Telescope

The SKA will help scientists solve fundamental questions about the universe, says Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith. (Source: Dragonfly media/CSIRO)
Lisa Harvey-Smith explains what the Square Kilometre Array telescope can offer science – and why Australia should host it.

Sometime in the next month we’ll know the outcome of the bid for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, a next-generation radio telescope, designed to answer fundamental questions about the universe.

The decision is critical for the future of our scientific discipline, as the winning site will not only be the home of the SKA but also one of the last safe havens for radio astronomy on this increasingly cluttered planet.

The Australasian approach would see telescopes concentrated at the Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory in Western Australia, and stretching across the Australian continent and into New Zealand.

The majority of the telescopes making up the SKA will be concentrated in an area tens of kilometres across. Some telescopes will be placed at even greater distances, leading to an array stretching at least 3000 kilometres from end-to-end.

This distance provides the magnification required to study galaxies billions of light years away.

What will it do?

Perhaps the biggest puzzle the SKA aims to solve is the physical makeup of the universe. In the 1930s astronomers studying the spiraling motions of distant galaxies made a startling discovery. The majority of matter that makes up galaxies is missing. The nature of this ‘dark matter’ remains completely unknown.

One theory suggests that dark matter is composed of exotic particles, as yet undiscovered. Giant ‘atom-smashers’ such as the Large Hadron Collider are searching for these exotic particles, with no success to date.

Using the awesome power of the SKA telescope, we seek to understand the nature of dark matter in two ways. First, by observing the very faint radio signals from galaxies in the distant universe. Second, by tracking the precise motions of stars orbiting the super-massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

An alternative to the dark matter theory is simply that our equations of gravity are wrong, or even that we need to revise our paradigm for the universe.

One interesting prediction of Einstein’s theory of gravity is that our universe is awash with ripples in the fabric of space and time, emitted when black holes orbit one another in a sort of elephantine celestial waltz.

Using the SKA, we hope to measure these so-called ‘gravitational waves’ for the first time, by detecting the motions of stars bobbing up and down like little boats on a cosmic swell. These observations are almost impossible with current telescopes, due to the fleeting nature of the weak radio signals emitted by these stars.

Beyond astronomy

But SKA goes beyond pushing the boundaries of our scientific understanding — it will also produce significant technological offshoots and societal benefits.

In recent times, astronomy research has led to the development of commercial products such as digital cameras, wireless internet and medical imaging techniques that enable the detection and treatment of cancerous tumours.

The SKA will drive a new generation of technologies. With thousands of individual antennas collecting information from the sky, the telescope will produce an unimaginable torrent of data — estimated at 10 to 100 times greater than the current global internet data traffic.

The ‘brain’ of the SKA — a massive supercomputer that will combine the data from each individual telescope to create an image — will need the processing power of 1 billion desktop computers. The technological demand created by the project is driving the development of high-tech solutions to these challenges, not to mention the many other devices such as radio receivers, amplifiers and the associated electronic systems.

Why Australia?

The sheer size of Australia, our existing fast broadband network links and our proximity and connectivity to New Zealand provide significant benefits to the project.

The minimum science requirement for a 3000-kilometre baseline can be met within a single, politically stable nation, which ensures great simplicity and low risk to the project.

The east-west direction provides a boost to the imaging ability of the telescope, due to the rotation of the earth in this direction. The addition of telescopes in New Zealand will provide even greater magnification, further improving the scientific capabilities of the instrument.

And the burden of radio noise in almost eradicated in the Murchison region, which has a population density described by Australia’s SKA project director Brian Boyle as “two nano-people per square metre”.

As well as the protection offered by its tiny population, the area is legally protected to control future radio interference. This ensures that the Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory will remain an ideal site for radio astronomy throughout the 50-year lifetime of the SKA.

I sincerely hope that the decision is based upon the data carefully acquired from each candidate site and on the ability of the project to function in a safe and secure environment. These attributes will allow us to attract the very best science and engineering talent from around the world and train up a new generation of homegrown scientists and engineers right here in Australia.

Selecting the best site based upon science is the only sensible approach. If this is done, the SKA telescope will leave a lasting legacy for new generations of scientists to tackle the big questions about life, the universe and everything. Source: ABC Science


 Super Telescope Will Overload Computers

"The SKA will produce nine million signals at once, enough to fill five thousand 160-gigabyte mp3 players every minute." Dr Bryan Gaensler

Sentists admit they’ll be forced to throw out valuable data because today’s computers aren’t powerful enough to process all the information that will be generated by a proposed new super telescope. The planned $2.3 billion dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the largest and most sophisticated radio telescope ever built.

It will consist of 3000 radio antenas spread across thousands of square kilometres, all linked by optical fibres and computers. Scientists claim it will be capable of seeing the first stars as they begin to shine, and help astronomers study mysterious forces like dark matter and dark energy. Professor Bryan Gaensler from the University of Sydney, says the SKA will look deeper into the cosmos than anything that’s been built before.

“It will answer many outstanding questions about the universe and most likely raise many new ones,” he says. According to Gaensler, each of the 3000 dishes will be collecting data continuously and when combined, the SKA will produce nine million signals at once, enough to fill five thousand 160-gigabyte mp3 players every minute.

This huge amount of data presents a new problem to astronomers. “Until now we’ve been recording all the data and you can spend years gently going through it and taking your time. But that won’t happen with the SKA,” says Gaensler. “You can’t even write that amount of data to disk because there are no hard drives big enough to store that much information that quickly. So you have to decide in real time what you keep and what you don’t.

“The data is coming in too fast for people to decide, so you need a computer program to do it for you. “But if the program selects the wrong thing, you’ll end up throwing away something you need, and you can’t get it back again.”

Putting computers in charge

To deal with the problem Gaensler and colleagues are working on new intelligent computer algorithms to process the torrent of data. “We need computers that can do the job of humans, but make decisions on a timescale of microseconds. It would decide if something is interesting or should be thrown away,” he says. “Undoubtedly we’ll occasionally be throwing out important data.”

But Gaensler says the software will designed to recognise important astronomical events. “There are certain types of things in astronomy which are always interesting like explosions or some flash that appears and then it’s gone”. Astronomers also hope ‘Moore’s law’ will assist them in processing the volumes of data. This 1965 prediction by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore suggests that computing powers doubles in capacity every two years, a prediction that’s proven amazingly accurate.

“Moore’s law means what’s impossible now will be challenging in five years, and straight forward in 10,” says Gaensler. He says this and the nature of the SKA will allow astronomers to increase its capacity to collect data over time gradually. “The beautiful thing about the SKA is that it’s sort of organic, you don’t have to have it all working at once,” Gaensler.

“I imagine when you first turn it on you’re just going to see the tip of the iceberg and as computers get more powerful it will become a richer instrument, growing in power as time goes on.” The SKA will be built in either Australia and New Zealand or Southern Africa. A decision will be made on its location in 2012. Source: ABC Science


Downloading A Billion Terabytes

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research has signed a agreement with DataDirect Networks to develop the extraordinary new data storage capability, in preparation for the potential data deluge from the Square Kilometre Array. The amount of computer data generated by the entire world in a whole year will need to be stored in a single day for the world’s most powerful telescope − the SKA − and the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) is gearing up to meet that unprecedented need.

ICRAR scientists say the $2 billion SKA will generate one exabyte of data − a billion terabytes (or one quintillion bytes) – every day while it searches the sky with the power to detect airport radars in other galaxies 50 light years away. ICRAR Director Peter Quinn said preparatory work for the SKA − for which Australia/New Zealand and Southern Africa are bidding − was “bringing together some of the world’s leading minds to figure out how to solve the data deluge”.

Professor Andreas Wicenec, ICRAR’s head of computing, said DataDirect Networks were world leaders in the type of high-performance computing data storage required for a new era of advanced radio astronomy.

English: Artist's impression of the 15m x 12m ...

Artist's impression of the 15m x 12m Offset Gregorian Antennas within the central core of thr Square Kilometre Array. Image via Wikipedia

DataDirect Networks’ experience would flow into storage for the SKA through work on the Australian precursor radio telescopes, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) − due for completion at the end of this year − and the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) which would be ready at the end of 2013.

“Combining DataDirect Networks’ expertise in providing ultra high-speed access to large amounts of data with our experience in how astronomers need to access their material gives us the opportunity to develop the best solution,” he said.

Signing of the agreement followed last week’s installation at UWA of a new Fornax supercomputer − 10,000 times faster than an average office desktop computer − to help drive ICRAR’s powerful new radio telescopes.

ICRAR is also preparing to develop a low-frequency component of the SKA − dubbed “SKA-low” − which, unlike the SKA’s high-frequency collecting “dish” antenna array, consists of new electronic antennas with no moving parts.

Professor Peter Hall, ICRAR Deputy Director responsible for engineering, said telescopes of SKA-low’s design were a relatively recent development in radio astronomy. ICRAR has just signed an agreement with scientists from organisations in Europe, India and the UK to form a collaboration for the development of SKA-low, which would form a significant part of the SKA project.

“Another benefit of our role in this collaboration is more opportunity for Australian industry to be involved in the SKA, regardless of where it is sited,” Professor Hall said.
He said ICRAR was working closely with the Australasian SKA Industry Consortium to ensure Australian enterprises had maximum opportunities to tender for construction work. This media release is courtesy of the University of Western Australia.

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