BAE Systems to support Square Kilometre Array radio telescope


BAE Systems has firmed its support of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project by signing a statement of mutual interest (SoMI) to support the world’s largest radio telescope network.

The SKA will be the world’s largest telescope and is so named because its 3 000 antennas will cover an area of one square kilometre. The 1.5 billion euro instrument will be 50 to 100 times more sensitive and ten thousand times faster than any existing radio telescope.

Australia, allied with New Zealand, and South Africa, together with eight African countries, are competing to host the SKA. where there is little radio interference and the view of the Milky Way is best. The two countries are the leading contenders because of vast open spaces that are relatively free from radio signal interference and give a good view of the Milky way, allowing faster observation at high resolution. The international SKA consortium will announce the winner early next year. Construction will start around 2014 and will finish by around 2022, with the telescope starting operations in 2024.

The multinational SKA science project will seek to answer fundamental questions in physics and astrophysics by collecting data released by gas clouds after the Big Bang, giving researches a better idea as to how the universe was formed and whether there might be life on other planets. Many objects in the galaxy, such as pulsars, nebulae and supernovas, emit radio frequency radiation.

BAE Systems’ UK engineers are lending their project management skills to the SKA Program Development Office (SPDO) at the University of Manchester, to help plan the construction of the SKA in return for access to the new radio processing techniques needed to analyse the enormous amounts of data generated by the telescope.

Collecting the data from individual antennae will be an enormous undertaking as it will require data links with a capacity greater than current world Internet traffic. Processing it will require high performance computers. BAE Systems wants to work with this technology to improve its product line.

At the same time, BAE Systems’ engineers in South Africa and Australia are supporting their respective countries’ bids to host the telescope, BAE Systems said. In South Africa, BAE Systems has supplied antennas to the MeerKAT precursor project, and in Australia, BAE Systems is an active member of the Australasian SKA Industry Consortium.

Les Gregory, BAE Systems Mission Systems’ Radar Director in the UK, said: “The Square Kilometre Array is international ‘megascience’ at its most innovative, and will be similar in scale and ambition to projects like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider or the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) nuclear fusion programme. BAE Systems…will offer advice and support to the SKA development team to ensure the project is on time and delivers its research goals.”

SKA Project Director, Professor Richard Schilizzi said: “The SKA promises to be one of the top global science projects of the 21st century. Using innovative receptor technologies and one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, the SKA will probe the origins of the universe. However the spin off technologies will have applications closer to home such as mega-data management, very low-power Radio Frequency devices, and ‘system of systems’ control software”.

In addition to producing groundbreaking science research on the foundations of the universe, the SKA will drive innovation in several technological fields, including information and communication technologies (ICT), wireless communication, sensor technology, and renewable energy.

Meanwhile, South Africa is stepping up its SKA bid activities. Briefing Parliament’s portfolio committee on science and technology in Cape Town on Wednesday, representatives from the Department and Science and Technology (DST) said that preparations for the SKA project were in full swing in the Karoo, Bua News reports.

The DST said that it was working to garner support from participating countries including Ghana, Mozambique and Botswana, but as also looking to the United States. The SKA will appear on the agenda at Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s meeting with American counterpart Joe Biden next week. In addition, the DST is targeting strong astronomy countries like China, India and Japan in engaging their scientific communities.

Dr Val Munsami from the DST said that they were aiming to reach key decision-makers within the global SKA project, included SKA funding agencies group members and steering board members.