Contracts awarded for world’s largest telescope

The international Square Kilometre Array office awarded contracts last week to prepare for construction of the world’s largest radio telescope – and the biggest science experiment ever undertaken.

Groups of companies have joined to form consortia to undertake pre-construction of 11 different aspect of the giant radio telescope array.

Comprising 3,000 dish antennas covering a total collecting area of one square kilometre in remote regions of Australia and South Africa, the telescope will be 50 times more sensitive and 10,000 times faster than the world’s current most powerful radio telescopes.

Ten countries – Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom – are currently involved in building the telescope, with the non-profit international SKA Organisation based in Manchester managing the project.

“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.”

Pre-construction work

Australian industry and research institutes will participate in seven of the 11 pre-construction work packages for the telescope’s development, with the Perth-based International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, or ICRAR, directly involved in three.

“The astronomy community has moved into the next exciting phase of work towards the SKA,” said the centre's director, Professor Peter Quinn. “ICRAR is very much an important part of the SKA project and we can now start producing returns on Western Australia’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 and will be called ‘SKA-low’.

The data processor is 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 used to combine the signals from the millions of SKA-low antennas into the format needed for the data processor.

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

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

Work on the site has already begun, with a first stage test array of new-generation low frequency antennas co-located with the MWA in the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in a remote region of Western Australia.

The test array has already produced images, and extensive measurements are under way to help finalise SKA antenna and systems designs.

Construction work in Australia is expected to run to A$175 million (US$166 million), while the SKA Organisation expects eventually to spend US$125 million to $190 million a year on operating and maintaining the telescope.

Coming together

Although to be built in South Africa and Australia, multiple spinoffs of the telescope will involve outstations in eight African partner countries: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

With pre-construction now under way and construction expected to start in 2016, the second phase should see the telescope slowly come together over the years from 2019-24.

When complete the telescope will enable radio astronomers to understand how stars and galaxies formed, and how they evolved over time, and perhaps even to detect life elsewhere in the universe.