NBN to help facilitate the SKA

Australia and New Zealand's component of the SKA will study different aspects of the universe than South Africa's

The SKA telescope will generate about 10 times more data than current global internet traffic, according to a SKA scientist.

Lisa Harvey-Smith, SKA scientist at CSIRO, said the National Broadband Network (NBN) will help send this data from the telescope and antenna sites in Murchison to Perth, Western Australia.

Data will then be sent on the NBN Perth to Geraldton fibre link, which was completed in March last year, and is part of the $250 million Regional Backbone Blackspots program, which is delivering 6000km of fibre backbone to regional Australia.

“It’s very important for us – it’s a great boost – and it will help the computer data transport and processing aspects of the project,” Harvey-Smith said.

“We’ll literally use that cable to transport our data from the telescope through to the supercomputing centre, which is being built in Perth and that’s where we actually process the data. That’s the brain of the telescope.”

The announcement was made on Friday night that the €1.5 billion (A$1.9 billion) SKA radio telescope would be jointly hosted by Australia/New Zealand and South Africa.

The project will allow astronomers and scientists to survey tens of millions of galaxies and answer questions such as how the universe began.

“Anyone who understands radio astronomy knows that all of these components are completely essential to discover what happened at the beginning of the universe, how stars and galaxies have evolved, what the universe is made of ... [and] whether there’s other life in the universe,” Harvey-Smith said.

“So, all of the components of the telescope are sited in the appropriate places for the science that they’re meant to do.”

While South Africa has expressed surprise at the decision to share the SKA hosting, a shared site allows more project partners to remain involved, meaning more funding and more resources, according to Harvey-Smith.

“All the science will be shared [and] all the expertise will be shared across the world,” she said.

Project details

The SKA will be developed across three phases, with the €350m phase one to be shared between Australia/New Zealand and South Africa. Australia’s component of the project will include building around 60 dishes with array feed technology. These dishes will work in conjunction with the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and the low frequency antennas.

The outcome and success of phase one will determine phase two, but if all goes well, Harvey-Smith said around 10 times more low frequency antennas will be built in Australia to enable scientists to look back in time to the cosmic dark ages before galaxies and stars were born.

“It’s really studying the big bang, and that’s extremely exciting. Nobody’s ever seen that period of the universe, so it’s a completely new area of science that we’ll tackle with the low frequency radio antennas in Australia,” she said.

“We’ll be able to see billions of light years away, which will tell us about the fundamental forces of the universe.”

About $400 million has been invested into the ASKAP project and the Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory from the Commonwealth and WA government, with the ASKAP telescope currently comprising 36 dishes. It is already booked out for the next five years.

Harvey-Smith said ASKAP recently received new receivers which allow astronomers to see 30 sqm – 100 pixels – of sky.

“Provided these work well, and we have very recent tests indicating they work extremely well, we’re going to build another 60 dishes to extend this pathfinder telescope to 100 dishes to do massive surveys of the sky,” she said.

“We’ll be able to see about tens of millions or hundreds of millions of galaxies and try and discover what dark matter is and dark energy and all these mysterious parts of the universe.”

Meanwhile, the high frequency technology will be built in South Africa and comprise steerable dishes, such as South Africa’s MeerKAT array which is already under construction in the Karoo desert.

Each country will also study different aspects of the universe. Harvey-Smith said the South African telescopes will study the fundamental nature of gravity and produce detailed images of objects. However, the Australian aspect of project will research the composition of the universe, such as dark matter and dark energy, and the history of the universe, such as the first stars and how galaxies were born.

Phase one of the SKA project is expected to be completed in 2020.

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More about: Backbone, CSIRO, CSIRO, etwork, Pathfinder
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