Funding boost for world’s most powerful telescope

16 Apr 2014

The University of Manchester has been awarded more than £6 million towards its part in the design work for the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) confirmed the funding – together with a further £13 million for other UK partners – to pay towards key SKA development and design work over the next three years.

The SKA, which has its headquarters at the University’s Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, will be the most powerful radio telescope array in the world when scientific observations start from 2020 and will address fundamental unanswered questions about the Universe.

The combined collecting area of the hundreds of thousands of individual radio telescopes located at sites in Southern Africa and Australia will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity and 10,000 times the survey speed of today’s best telescopes.

The SKA will produce about 20 times the current global internet traffic in its internal telecommunications system and one of the major challenges for scientists and engineers will be how to handle, transport and process such vast quantities of data.

Manchester scientists are leading the SKA Signal and Data Transport (SADT) consortium, which will be responsible for solving these ‘Big Data’ issues. The group will design three data transport networks: one to take the astronomical data from the thousands of antennas to the High Performance Computer (HPC); a second network to distribute clock and synchronisation signals from a central group of very accurate clocks out to each antenna; and a third network to allow telescope control and monitoring information to flow back and forth throughout the SKA system.

The volume of telescope data to be transported is huge and is likely to be about 20 times the amount of data currently flowing around the worldwide web,” said Dr Keith Grainge, head of the SKA group in the University of Manchester’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

“The technology required to handle and process such incredible amounts of information is way beyond what is currently available, so the Signal and Data Transport project, led by Manchester, will require technical innovations that will transform our capabilities in many scientific and engineering fields, including data processing, optical fibre technology and high-performance computing.”

Some of the £6 million funding will also go into designing new technology for SKA’s pulsar surveys, led by the pulsar group in Manchester’s School of Physics and Astronomy, and antenna design for the ‘billion galaxy survey’, led by scientists in the University’s School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering.

Dr Grainge added: “The STFC announcement is wonderful news and provides us with the necessary funding to develop the teams with our partners to meet the tough design challenges that will be required for this hugely important, international project.”

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