Milestone for SKA telescope reached: networking system design completed

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The ASKAP telescope at night

With the design of the complex networking system for the Square Kilometre Array telescope now completed, scientists are a step closer to being able to observe the unchartered Universe.

The SKA will be made up of thousands of antennas spread across remote areas of Australia and South Africa. Linked together, they will form the world’s largest radio telescope, surveying the sky ten thousand times faster than ever before.  When this powerful instrument is operational, who knows what scientists will discover about dark matter, dark energy,  galaxies, and life elsewhere.

The detailed design of the networking system has been developed by a consortium that brought together 15 different organisations spread across eight countries, including AARNet working with CSIRO in Australia.

Led by the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics group at University of Manchester in the UK, the consortium faced the challenge of designing a system that will be required to transport unprecedented amounts of data over vast distances, while ensuring that signals are synchronised in a way that enables the arrays to operate together like a single telescope, a huge challenge given the large number of antennas spread over hundreds of kilometres.

During four and a half years of collaboration, consortium members were responsible for the design of two data transport networks:

  • The first, the Digital Data Backhaul (DDBH), transports signals from the radio telescopes to the Central Signal Processor (CSP) on site, where the initial processing takes place – known as beamforming and correlation.
  • The second network transfers data products from the CSP to the Science Data Processor (SDP), located hundreds of kilometres away. There the data for actual science will be processed before being distributed to the SKA Regional Centres around the world. The data rates involved are huge, in total equivalent to about a third of the world’s internet traffic.
  • In addition, SaDT also designed a network that connects all the telescopes locations and transports the telescopes’ monitoring and control information, together with the general communications traffic.

The consortium’s work also included the design of clocks and a custom-made frequency distribution system. A University of Western Australia (UWA)-led effort was selected for the synchronisation of the SKA-mid dishes in South Africa while a Tsinghua University-led design was selected for the SKA-low antennas in Australia.

“The SKA’s scale has been a huge challenge. The consortium has done great work to get to this stage and overcome incredible technical difficulties,” said SKA Organisation Project Manager for SaDT André van Es.

“The synchronisation we need to achieve is challenged not only by the large distances that we need to cover, but also the environmental conditions that affect the signals on their way from the antennas to the processing facilities – we have to compensate for all of this.”

SaDT was one of 12 international engineering consortia that were formed in November 2013, representing 500 engineers and scientists in 20 countries. Nine of the consortia each focused on a core component of the telescope, all critical to the overall success of the project, while three others are developing advanced instrumentation for the telescope.

The nine consortia are all undergoing Critical Design Reviews in 2018 and 2019. In this final stage, the proposed design is examined in detail by a panel of international experts and must meet the project’s tough engineering requirements to be approved, so that a construction proposal for the telescope can be developed.

Read the original media release

Read more about the SKA.

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