IT giants eye SA tech

By Leon Engelbrecht, ITWeb senior writer
Johannesburg, 29 Apr 2008

IT companies are watching the research and development (R&D) effort preceding the global Square Kilometre Array (SKA). They hope to pick up on the novel and new generation technologies being developed for the 1.5 billion euro (R18 billion) mega project, says MeerKAT project leader Anita Loots.

More than 30 research institutes in 15 countries are contributing to the R&D effort.

"The manufacturers are very interested, but the technology has to be proven first," says Loots.

She says SA is focusing on a number of key areas, "particularly the antenna design itself, along with novel technologies and materials to be used in their construction, as well as digital signal processing and the development of next-generation correlators.

"Old generation correlators are called XF correlators; they do correlation in a certain way that is very clunky and the computers are very difficult to operate," Loots says. "The new FX correlators are scalable and flexible. They rely on commercial-off-the-shelf computers as much as possible, whereas the old ones were all custom-built and once you ordered them with a certain configuration, you were stuck with it."

Loots adds that the FX correlators contain new multilayered boards that will be able to process data "very, very, fast... and store significant chunks of data. The firmware and gateways going onto the boards are very innovative."

Significant attention is being paid to risk reduction, she adds. "We are testing the first prototype board on an American experiment" and after that one, a telescope in India.

"One of our post graduate students at Berkeley is going over to Italy to test the board there," Loots says. "Once the technology has been proven in various different big facilities, it will come here. Hopefully we won't be the guinea pigs ... by the time it gets to [SKA precursor] MeerKAT, it will be tested in full."

Over in Oz

The R900 million MeerKAT is an 80-dish radio telescope to be built at a site near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape from later this year. SA is rivalling Australia to host the SKA. They are also involved in the R&D effort and are building a rival to MeerKAT, at Boolardy, east of Carnarvon and north of Perth in Western Australia.

"They [Australia] have a site even more remote than ours. It is a full day's travel from the nearest town. There they are going to deploy an array of up to 45 dishes with a feed system relying on a high-risk technology," Loots says.

"We initially wanted to build a MeerKAT of 20 dishes with similar feed systems and very quickly realised that we would not be able to deploy a technology that is robust enough to stand up to the heat and dust of the Karoo in the time available.

"We then decided to go for more dishes with a narrower-band feed, while they decided to go ahead with their wide-band feed. Nobody believes they can build the system...

"The difference [between SA and Australia] is we are delivering as we go along, so we can be proven wrong while they can't because they are just delivering promises."

Related stories:
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MeerKAT takes shape
SA steps up SKA bid
SKA race hots up
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Govt pushes space science and tech
SKA millions fund R&D