Developing cutting-edge software for the Square Kilometre Array Observatory

UK institutions have been granted £15m to develop the ‘brain’ of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory, which is the biggest radio telescope in the world.

The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) is positioned to investigate the evolution of the early Universe. Amongst its many objectives will be to examine the role of some of the earliest processes in shaping galaxies such as the Milky Way.

The novel radio telescopes will examine the sky at unparalleled rates and will need incredibly powerful computing in order to do so. Therefore, specialised advanced software is being devised to control and monitor the telescope operations, and to enable detailed calibration and processing of the enormous quantities of scientific data.

From its headquarters in the UK, the SKAO will manage the delivery and operations of two groundbreaking complementary arrays, with 197 radio telescope dishes situated in South Africa and over 130,000 low-frequency antennas in Western Australia.

The ‘brain’ of SKAO

Reinforcing these phenomenal instruments is the ‘brain’ of its software system. The system directs the telescopes, informing them where to look and when, as well as identifying any problems and converting the telescope signals into useable data through which breakthroughs can be made.

Institutions in the UK have already performed a crucial role in developing the software for the telescopes during the design phase. Going forward the UK will continue to play a leading role as the telescopes are built.

The UK as a global science superpower

Science Minister George Freeman said: “It is no surprise that the UK’s outstanding scientists are playing such a vital role in shaping the future of this cutting-edge global observatory, backed by £15m government funding.

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

“This reflects the incredible skill of our science community, who are working hand-in-hand with industry to ensure the UK continues to grow as a global science superpower.”

UK involvement in the Square Kilometre Array Observatory

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has granted over £15m to UK institutions towards the UK’s involvement in the software development stage of the construction project.

The UK institutions participating in this novel project include the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester and Oxford, as well as STFC’s Rutherford Appleton and Daresbury Laboratories and its Astronomy Technology Centre.

The SKAO head office is located at Jodrell Bank, near Manchester, and its development was co-funded by the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), through STFC.

Through STFC, the UK Government is the largest contributor to the SKAO, and the Government has committed to supporting construction and initial operations from 2021 to 2030 by funding 15% of its total costs.

Professor Mark Thomson, Executive Chair of STFC and member of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory Council, explained: “The UK continues to play a leading role in the SKAO and the development of its telescopes.

“For any large scientific endeavour, the linchpin of its success lies in the infrastructure.

“Without the power to process and organise the vast amounts of information these telescopes will gather, we could not make the important discoveries.

“With the skills and expertise of our researchers and colleagues in industry, the UK will deliver the computing brain and nervous system of the telescopes to enable the observations and unlock the science.”

Academia and industry collaborate

On top of channelling the knowledge from UK’s research and academia, software development also requires continued participation from industry partners.

STFC’s Conrad Graham, UK project manager, concluded: “Involvement with the SKA project brings significant benefits for the UK, not just in terms of direct economic returns on investment, but also via innovation and technological spin offs, driven by the requirements of the project.

“The award of new contracts will provide opportunities for UK industry to engage with the project across all areas of SKA software design.

“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.”

The future of telescopes

The Square Kilometre Array Observatory recently obtained the go-ahead to start its construction phase from its member states and construction is anticipated to be finalised by the end of the decade, with the telescopes projected to be in operation for more than half a century.

As one of the largest scientific endeavours in modern history, the SKAO brings together more than 500 engineers and 1,000 scientists in more than 20 countries.

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