SKA ‘one of the most exciting science projects of the century’

The SKA will put South Africa at the heart of space science research and will require massive bandwidth. (Supplied)

The SKA will put South Africa at the heart of space science research and will require massive bandwidth. (Supplied)

The Square Kilometer Array (SKA), to be co-sited in Australia and South Africa with installations extending into sub-Saharan Africa, is the result of collaboration of 11 member countries, headquartered in the UK, with teams in 20 countries undertaking the design.

Dr Philip Diamond, the SKA Director-General, says the project is back on track in terms of its timelines, with an important milestone — the submission of preliminary designs for review — to take place towards the end of this year. Actual construction is not set to begin before 2017, although a precursor to the SKA, the MeerKAT, officially launched 64 antennas and MeerKAT Karoo Array Processor building in the Karoo last month.

In Australia, another precursor, ASKAP, has been built and is in commissioning, and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), is now in early operations. Another major milestone last month was the announcement by UK Science Minister, David Willetts, that the UK Government would invest €120-million in the SKA project, a significant contribution toward the €650-million cost of construction of phase one.

Currently, multinational consortia are developing designs for components of the project. The work of these global teams of scientists, engineers, ICT professionals and technicians is expected to have numerous spin-offs benefiting science, technology and manufacturing. Because of the remote locations of the SKA, as well as its unique cost constraints and high power and computing requirements, the SKA is driving innovation across a number of sectors, says Dr Diamond.

In addition to the massive big data networking and processing power that will be needed, the SKA sites will require adequate and affordable power, low power electronics and innovative dish constructions. For example: “You may think a dish is just a dish, but with thousands of dishes needed, the SKA is driving development of innovative ways to bring the costs down. So we have groups in China and Canada looking at new carbon fibre reflective surfaces that are lighter and possibly cheaper, as well as new techniques to build large, cheaper single piece reflectors,” he says.  

“South African partners are also looking at novel and cost-effective technologies and are considering an elegant, unusual offset design with aluminium panels mounted on a steel support framework for the main reflector surface.” In addition to the expected product and service innovation spin-offs, the SKA is already benefiting local businesses and skills development in both Australia and South Africa.

“In South Africa, many of the technicians now working on MeerKAT are local people from Carnarvon, who have been upskilled as technicians. In Australia, many of the necessary technical skills are already in place, but local businesses — including Aboriginal businesses — are starting to benefit from the project,” he says.

A catalyst for SA tech development

The SKA project is set to catalyse significant innovation, development of the technology and ICT sectors in South Africa, and even boost local skills, says Alpheus Mangale, managing director of Cisco South Africa. “Cisco has been involved in the SKA project since inception and it is a project we are passionate about,” he says.

For Cisco, in its capacity as a communications networking company, the SKA presents an opportunity to research and develop technologies to support data transmission on an unprecedented scale. When the SKA is fully operational, it will scan the skies constantly, gathering massive amounts of data, and then transmit that data to researchers all over the world.

The SKA project office expects data rates from the three components of SKA Phase 1 as follows: SKA1_mid (254 dishes in South Africa) – 23 Tb/s; SKA1_Survey (96 dishes in Australia) – 220 Tb/s; SKA1_low (250,000 low frequency antennas in Australia) – 2400 Tb/s (2.4 Pb/s). Combined, this means the maximum SKA data rate, internal to the Observatory, is 20 to 30 times the current data rate of the entire internet.

The processed data from the SKA telescope will be used by an international community of astronomers who will require connections to the high performance computing facility and enormous archive capability to store the data. This connectivity will be limited by that available on international connection systems, but there is a desire to reach hundreds of gigabits per second.

This will require network infrastructure that will surpass the global internet by a huge factor in terms of the amounts of data being sent globally. Signal processing has never witnessed anything on this scale. Putting it into layman’s terms, says the data collected by the SKA would take nearly two million years to play back on an iPod. As the world’s enterprises grapple with managing increasing amounts of data, the research into technologies that support the transmission and storage of data on a scale such as that to be generated by the SKA is expected to result in breakthroughs that benefit telecoms and ICT as a whole.

“We are sponsoring ground-breaking research at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University that could result in the development of revolutionary big data transmission equipment. This research could result in spin-offs beneficial for Cisco and for South African companies,” says Mangale. Cisco has also donated cutting edge live interaction technology allowing the project co-ordinators to video conference from sites across the world, as well as equipment to test some of the concepts the researchers are currently trialling.

“What we find particularly exciting about the SKA project is its potential to boost science and technology skills within the country,” says Mangale. Not only will the SKA project attract highly qualified astronomers, scientists and engineers, whose skills will benefit local colleagues, the building of the SKA project is already boosting interest in ICT and engineering skills in the remote hamlet of Carnarvon, the key SKA site in South Africa. Cisco, and other ICT stakeholders such as Intel, have already begun rolling out projects to connect schools in the area, establish a community centre to take ICT solutions to the community, and make Cisco Networking Academy courseware available to local learners.

“For the first time, this remote community is able to access advanced ICTs and its young people are able to explore science and technology career options they may not previously have been aware of,” says Mangale. “So, before it has even been built, the SKA project is already benefiting the country.”

This article has been paid for and signed off by KPMG and its business partners.



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