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Australia designs local infra for world’s largest radio telescope

Credit: CSIRO

The local infrastructure for the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), has been designed by a team of Australian engineers and scientists.

This takes the billion dollar global project one step closer to reality.

As reported, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, is leading the SKA Infrastructure Australia consortium together with an industry partner.

The Infrastructure

The consortium has designed everything from supercomputing facilities, buildings, site monitoring and roads.

They also covered the power and data fibre distribution that will be needed to host the instrument at the Agency’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in remote Western Australia.

With a speed that is hundreds of times faster than any current facility, the SKA will explore the Universe in unprecedented detail.

Antennas will be located in both Australia and southern Africa.

Technical challenges

The project has presented unique technical challenges. These are:

  1. The data flows will be on the scale of petabits, which are a million billion bits per second.

This is more than the global internet rate today and it will all be flowing into a single building in the Murchison.

Groundwork to host 132,000 low-frequency SKA antennas in Australia has been set. These antennas will be receiving staggering amounts of data.

65,000 fibre optic cables need to be laid in order to get this data from the antennas to the telescope’s custom supercomputing facilities.

The consortium engineers drew on their experience while working together on the infrastructure design for the Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope.

The aforementioned telescope is the Agency’s 36-dish radio telescope, which is currently operating at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.

  1. Minimising radio ‘noise’ created by the systems placed at the high-tech astronomy observatory.

It is essential to minimise the radio ‘noise’ in order to avoid drowning out the faint signals from space that the telescope is designed to detect.

Containing the interference created by their computing and power systems is an unusual construction requirement.

The team is trying to reduce the level of radio emissions by factors of billions.

The custom supercomputing building, for instance, is effectively a fully welded box within a box, with the computing equipment to be located within the inner shield.

The support plane equipment, on the other hand, will be located in the outer shield.

Global effort

While the Australian consortium is working on the infrastructure designs for Australia, a second consortium had designed the infrastructure for the South African SKA site.

The collaboration between the Australian and South African infrastructure consortia is a great example of the massive global effort behind the SKA project.

These consortia represent 500 engineers and scientists in 20 countries.

Infrastructure is not usually seen as an arena for innovation. However, this project has produced innovative designs, in Australia, which may have applications beyond astronomy.

In addition to the incredible scientific potential of this project, SKA is expected to generate many spin-off benefits that cannot be anticipated yet.

This design work was funded by the Australian Government and the European Union.

Once all the design packages are completed and approved, a critical design review for the entire SKA system will take place ahead of a construction proposal being developed.

Construction is expected to begin in 2020.

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