Tuesday, 26 February 2019 08:05

Australian team designs infrastructure for largest telescope

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Australian team designs infrastructure for largest telescope Matthias_Groeneveld on Pixabay

Australian engineers and scientists have designed the local infrastructure for the biggest radio telescope — the Square Kilometre Array — moving the billion-dollar global project a step closer to being launched.

A statement from the CSIRO, which is leading the SKA Infrastructure Australia consortium along with industry partner Aurecon Australia, said the group had designed everything from supercomputing facilities, buildings, site monitoring and roads, to the power and data fibre distribution that are needed to host the instrument at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in remote Western Australia.

The Infrastructure Australia group, and counterparts designing SKA infrastructure in co-host country South Africa, are among 12 consortia each designing specific elements of the SKA and include some 500 engineers and scientists in 20 countries.

Construction is expected to begin next year after the design packages are complete and approved, and a critical design review takes place. Funding for the project has come from the Australian Government and the European Union.

“We’re setting the groundwork to host 132,000 low-frequency SKA antennas in Australia. These will receive staggering amounts of data,” CSIRO’s SKA Infrastructure Consortium director Antony Schinckel said.

“The data flows will be on the scale of petabits, or a million billion bits, per second – more than the global Internet rate today, all flowing into a single building in the Murchison.

“To get this data from the antennas to the telescope’s custom supercomputing facilities we need to lay 65,000 fibre optic cables.”

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An artist’s impression of the future Square Kilometre Array in Australia. Credit: SKA Organisation

CSIRO and Aurecon engineers have already worked on the infrastructure design for the Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope, CSIRO’s 36-dish radio telescope that is already operating at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory and this experience stood them in good stead.

Aurecon’s senior project engineer Shandip Abeywickrema said the biggest challenge was minimising radio "noise" created by systems to avoid drowning out faint signals from space that the telescope is designed to detect.

“Containing the interference created by our own computing and power systems is an unusual construction requirement,” Abeywickrema said. “We’re trying to reduce the level of radio emissions by factors of billions.

“For example, the custom supercomputing building is effectively a fully welded box within a box, with the computing equipment to be located within the inner shield, while support plant equipment will be located in the outer shield.”

Australian SKA director David Luchetti said a second consortium had designed the infrastructure for the South African SKA site.

“CSIRO and Aurecon have delivered world-class designs, and the collaboration between the Australian and South African infrastructure consortia is a great example of the massive global effort behind the SKA project,” he said.

“Infrastructure isn’t usually seen as an arena for innovation, but this project has produced innovative designs, in Australia, which may have applications beyond astronomy.

“In addition to the incredible scientific potential of this project, we expect that the SKA will generate many spin-off benefits that we can’t yet anticipate. We want to make sure Australia is best placed to capture these benefits.”

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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