Engineering, Future, Space

SKA: The technical aspect of a mega project

SKA is not only about astronomy. The technological advances just to bring SKA to fruition, never mind its operation, will have wide-ranging benefits for everyone.

The SKA project will cost approximately $3 billion to build, and $150 million per year thereafter to run, with a projected lifespan of 50 years. Additionally, around $300 million dollars will be spent developing data networks to link the telescope sites and central processing sites. However, in preparation Australia has spent around $100 million building several pathfinder telescopes. Should the SKA project site be awarded to Australia, these pathfinder telescopes will be joined by the main SKA arrays starting in 2016, with initial data collection beginning in 2019. The building of SKA itself is not expected to be completed until 2024, however data collection and analysis can begin as soon as elements come on-line during the constructino phase. Obviously building a project on this scale will result in considerable employment, materials and transport needs during the construction phase.

CSIRO’s SKA trial ASKAP Antenna, March 2010. Image courtesy of the CSIRO

One of the most mindboggling statistics of the SKA project is just how much data it will produce. Every minute it is in operation enough data will be gathered to fill one million CD’s, which if stacked, would form a pile 1km tall. Another way of considering this data production is that the amount of data passing through the SKA network will be the equivalent of the amount of data flowing around the entire internet. To handle this immense amount of data new data networks will need to be built. A fibre optic network will need to be constructed to link all the SKA locations together for the sole use of the SKA. In fact the National Broadband Network being built in Australia will provide some of the infrastructure required for SKA, however should the NBN not proceed the SKA project will need to build their own network. Advances in the design and construction of these fibre optic networks are one of the potential non-astronomical benefits that SKA will provide as engineers find new ways to overcome any difficulties encountered.

Radio astronomy has helped develop data networks previously. It was through experiences with radio astronomy projects that researchers at the CSIRO were able to develop wi-fi technology which is currently used by nearly every portable device worldwide. SKA will likely produce similar advances in data networks which will feed into common use.

Obviously with this amount of data needing processing, considerable computing power is required. This is another area in which SKA will drive innovation and advancement, as the central supercomputers required to compile and analyse data will need to be able to process around 100 petaflops per second. This processing speed is 50 times faster than the current most powerful supercomputer, and the equivalent of around one billion desktop pc’s. Similarly, the immense amounts of data collected by each telescope will need to be refined before entering the data network. According to Peter Quinn from the Australia and New Zealand SKA project, this will require a supercomputer at each location just to carry out initial refining. As 3000 supercomputers would be prohibitively expensive, newer, faster and cheaper computer processors need be developed, technology will feed down into home computers.
An artist’s impression of the Pawsey High Performance Computing Centre for SKA Science at Perth’s Technology Park. Image courtesy of Woodhead/CSIRO.

Advancements in communications between sites will also need to be developed. Radios and conventional mobile phones would not be able to be used near the SKA sites due to the radio interference they would cause. Similarly, a rail line running near the sites requires new communications networks to allow trains to communicate with controllers. It is unrelated necessities such as these which sometimes throw up the most interesting challenges for engineers. When developing the Very Large Telescope in Chile, floodlights from a (relatively) nearby mine were being picked up by the extremely sensitive optical telescopes. To overcome this, the engineers from the telescope approached the mine and offered to redesign their lighting system. The result was no interference for the telescope, and a more efficient lighting system for the mine who were able to save money from reduced energy costs.

The advancements in technology from SKA won’t be limited to computing and communications however. The power generation needs of a project like SKA will be huge, far more than can be sourced from the current grid. Using conventional power generation will also result in considerable levels of pollution. Therefore, one of the challenges for the SKA project will be to develop green electricity generation facilities. Again, advancements in that field will flow down to common use. Simialrly, development of new processors to fulfil the computing requirements will include making them more energy efficient, technology which could potentially be incorporated into many home and office appliances.

These, and other advancements in technology, materials and engineering will all flow from the SKA project. Even if Australia is not awarded the right to host SKA, it is likely they will still be able to contribute in these other areas, as well as being an integral part by providing the scientific knowledge required for maximising the value of the data output. There is very little risk of the hardware becoming obsolete either, as the entire project is designed to be able to be upgraded throughout its lifespan to become more sensitive, more efficient, and more adept at processing data.

The SKA project is one of the most important scientific undertakings in history, with the potential for the results to be far more significant than those produced by the Large Hadron Collider. This project will expand our knowledge of the universe, our place in it, and how we formed unlike any project before, and do so while developing technology which will greatly benefit our day to day life. It is, quite simply, one of the most important scientific experiments ever attempted, and one which we should all be excited about.

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