UK to build SKAO telescope software

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More than £15m has been awarded to UK institutions to deliver the software ‘brain’ of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO)’s radio telescopes.

SKAO
Artist’s impression of the SKA-Low telescope in Australia. The 131,072 dipole antennas will survey the radio sky in frequencies as low as 50Mhz. In the background are dishes of the ASKAP radio telescope, an SKA precursor (credit: SKAO)

The SKAO is set to explore the evolution of the early universe from its UK headquarters at Jodrell Bank, near Manchester.

It will oversee delivery and operations of two complementary arrays with 197 radio telescope dishes located in South Africa, and more than 130,000 low-frequency antennas in Western Australia.

SKAO’s expansion was co-funded by the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) through STFC. It recently received the go-ahead from its member states to start construction, which is expected to be completed by the end of the decade with telescopes anticipated to operate for over 50 years.

“As well as providing the foundation for new galaxy-level discoveries, this award will help to guarantee future contracts for UK industry, secure skilled jobs and develop a highly-transferrable technology in the UK, channelling more money back into the UK economy,” said science minister George Freeman.

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The telescopes are planned to survey the sky much faster than existing radio telescopes. They will require powerful computing to ingest and process in real time the expected data rate of eight terabits per second, and to support regional processing centres managing more than 700 petabytes a year.

Underpinning the instruments is their software system, which tells the telescopes where to look and when, diagnosing any issues and translating the telescope signals into useable data from which discoveries can be made.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has awarded more than £15m to UK institutions to deliver the UK’s national contribution to software development during the construction project.

These institutions include Cambridge, Manchester and Oxford Universities as well as STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) Harwell Campus, Daresbury Laboratory in Liverpool, and Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh.

STFC’s Conrad Graham, UK project manager, said that the project brings significant benefits for the UK not only in direct economic return on investment, but also via innovation and technological spin-offs driven by project requirements.

“The award of new contracts will provide opportunities for UK industry to engage with the project across all areas of SKA software design,” Graham said in a statement.

“As a result of the UK’s participation and the SKAO’s policy of fair work return, the UK is leading on seven high-value construction contracts, which will see the creation of significant new opportunities for UK industry.”