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SMART Boxes Revolutionise Radio Astronomy

Image Credits: Curtin University, Press Release

A team consisting of researchers, engineers, and technicians has successfully developed the “SMART box,” a crucial innovation for powering the world’s largest radio telescope. The Power and Signal Distribution (PaSD) SMART boxes, short for Small Modular Aggregation RFoF Trunk, play a vital role in the Square Kilometre Array Low frequency (SKA-Low) telescope, currently in construction at the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia. These SMART boxes are responsible for supplying electrical power to the telescope’s 131,072 antennas and collecting signals received from the cosmos for off-site processing.

The Engineering & Operations team at Curtin University’s International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) spent a decade designing and constructing the initial set of 24 SMART boxes. These boxes are unique in that they must be strategically placed among the antennas, presenting a challenge due to their sensitivity.

Tom Booler, Program Lead for Engineering and Operations at ICRAR, emphasised that the SKA-Low telescope is designed to detect extremely faint signals that have traversed the universe for billions of years. To achieve this, the telescope is located in a pristine radio quiet zone, far from modern technology interference.

The primary source of potential interference in this quiet zone comes from electronic equipment like the SMART boxes, given their proximity to the antennas. Consequently, the project had to meet the strictest radio emission standards across the entire Australian SKA site.

To address this challenge, the team had to procure specialised “radio quiet” components that emit minimal interference, replacing the noisier alternatives. These components were then encased in a specially designed shielding to prevent any stray radio waves from escaping.

The SMART boxes underwent rigorous testing at a dedicated electromagnetic testing facility in South Africa, and they surpassed the highest standards in radio astronomy. In fact, the radio interference generated by these SMART boxes was found to be significantly lower than that of a mobile phone on the moon’s surface in proximity to the antennas.

Recently, a contract was awarded to a company based in Perth, to manufacture up to 12,000 SMART boxes for the complete setup of the SKA-Low telescope. This contract represents a significant milestone in Australia’s contribution to the SKA project, highlighting the nation’s capability in the space industry.

The Managing Director of the company expressed pride in being part of the SKA project, citing their experience in delivering robust electronic systems for the defence, security and mining sectors. He emphasised the unique challenges posed by the telescope’s extreme environmental conditions and stringent noise requirements, all of which provide valuable learning opportunities for the company.

The involvement of the company in the SKA project is seen as a remarkable opportunity to contribute to groundbreaking discoveries that may eventually emerge from this radio telescope.

The development and successful testing of the SMART boxes represent a remarkable feat of engineering and innovation, playing a pivotal role in powering the SKA-Low telescope, one of humanity’s most ambitious astronomical endeavours. The dedication and expertise of the team at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in designing and constructing these specialised devices are a testament to the unwavering commitment to advancing our understanding of the cosmos.

The stringent requirements of operating in a pristine radio quiet zone, where even the faintest electronic interference could disrupt the telescope’s mission, underscore the significance of the SMART boxes’ achievement. Their ability to surpass the highest standards in radio astronomy, surpassing the interference levels of a mobile phone on the moon’s surface, is a testament to the ingenuity of the team and their meticulous attention to detail.

Furthermore, the award of the contract to the company to manufacture thousands more SMART boxes not only solidifies Australia’s integral role in the SKA project but also highlights the nation’s burgeoning sovereign capability in the space industry.

As these SMART boxes continue to power the SKA-Low telescope and collect signals from the farthest reaches of the universe, they hold the promise of unveiling profound astronomical discoveries that could reshape our understanding of the cosmos. It is an exciting journey that inspires optimism and anticipation for the revelations that lie ahead in the world of radio astronomy, made possible by the remarkable SMART boxes and the dedicated individuals behind them.


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