Square Kilometre Array Australia

UK institutions secure £15m for Square Kilometre Array control software

Image credit: SKAO

Over £15m has been awarded to UK institutions, including the University of Manchester, to deliver the software ‘brain’ of the world’s largest radio telescope as it moves into the construction phase.

The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) is set to explore the evolution of the early universe and 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 at the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, the SKAO will oversee the delivery and operations of two cutting-edge, complementary arrays with 197 radio telescope dishes located in South Africa and more than 130,000 low-frequency antennas in Western Australia.

Professor Ben Stappers leads the Manchester team developing the 'Pulsar Search' software. This programme will enable SKAO experiments testing general relativity and aiming to detect gravitational waves.

The University of Manchester will also lead the development of the software for the monitor, control and calibration system of the SKA-LOW telescope. This telescope will be an array of the aforementioned 130,000 antennas, which will, amongst other experiments, detect the very first stars to be born in the universe.

The software underpinning these instruments will tell the telescopes where to look and when, diagnose any issues and translate 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, and is now set to continue leading this area as the telescopes are constructed.

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 £15m 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.”

The expansion of the SKAO headquarters at Jodrell Bank was co-funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

The UK government, through STFC, is the largest contributor to the SKAO and currently has a commitment to support 15 per cent of the total cost of construction and initial operations from 2021 to 2030.

Professor Mark Thomson, executive chair of STFC and a member of the SKAO Council, said: “For any large scientific endeavour, the lynchpin 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.”

The SKAO’s member states recently approved the start of the construction phase, which 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.

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 8Tbit/s, as well as supporting the regional processing centres in 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 of the huge amounts of data.

In 2020, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) succeeded in mapping three million galaxies in just 300 hours, generating 13.5 exabytes of raw data.

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