Mapping the universe

Manchester University is developing high-speed data crunching technology that will be crucial to the success of a £1.1bn radio telescope.

Manchester University is developing high-speed data crunching technology that will be crucial to the success of one of the greatest scientific projects of the 21st century.

The £1.1bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope will be around 200 times bigger and 100,000 times more powerful than the famous landmark Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank.

The project will allow astronomers to collect information over one million square metres – the equivalent of around 200 football pitches. It will give astronomers the ability to probe the early universe, test Einstein’s theory of relativity, learn more about mysterious dark matter and energy – and even search for signs of alien life.

Manchester University is leading the UK’s involvement in the SKA’s development through a €38m European design study known as SKADS (Square Kilometre Array Design Studies).

Researchers in the schools of Physics and Astronomy and Electrical and Electronic Engineering are working on the technology for an ‘aperture array’, which will be composed of tens of thousands of small antenna fixed to the ground. The completed SKA will consist of around 250 aperture arrays.

The Microelectronics and Nanostructures research group in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, led by Professor Mo Missous, is designing and fabricating receiver components and high-speed analogue-to-digital converters using semiconductor technology developed internally. The Microwave and Communication Systems group, led by Prof Tony Brown, is developing the antenna elements.

In developing the proposed system, engineers face a huge challenge in developing a system that can simultaneously handle data gathered by around 128,000 receivers – two receivers in each of the 64,000 elements.

To assist with the project, a Joint Study Agreement has been signed between Manchester University and IBM – a partnership that will give the university access to the most advanced real-time processing systems available.

Engineers are currently working with researchers based at IBM’s Thomas J Watson Research Center in the US to design the processing systems required for the SKA.

They will look across the range of IBM’s high-speed multi-core processing technologies for the solution that is best suited to their needs.

As part of the SKADS project, a total of £10m of development funding has been earmarked for the UK, including £8m from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (formerly PPARC).

Manchester University has received £3.5m to spearhead the research effort, in a close collaboration with Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.