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SA's SKA advantage removed

Read time 5min 30sec

SA and Australia are neck-on-neck in the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope after the cost metric, which gave SA an advantage, was removed.

The SKA is a mega-telescope that is about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope.

Both countries are up to date with report submissions for the bid, and one of the strongest deciding factors was to be the cost measurement.

It was used in the original metric for deciding the SKA site, but the focus on this has now been dropped, according to computing architect for the MeerKat Simon Ratcliffe. The MeerKat telescope is the precursor project for the SKA.

“We are fields ahead of Australia, especially in terms of civil and infrastructure costs. The insider feel is that costing was removed to level the playing field.”

SKA SA project manager Bernie Fanaroff also said the lower cost of living would have been an advantage for SA.

Highly sensitive

Ratcliffe says the countries are generally on par. “There are no unveiled smoking guns as yet.”

He adds that on technical matters, SA stands on the same level with Australia. “We showed this at the last meeting in Banff, Canada. When they spoke about their technical progressions it made us look good.”

Both countries have precursor arrays, although they serve different functions.

The Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) is a radio telescope comprising an array of 36 antennae working together as a single instrument.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia says in one week, ASKAP will generate more information than is currently contained on the whole World Wide Web.

The MeerKat will be one of the largest scientific research facilities in the world. It will consist of 64 dishes. An engineering test bed of seven dishes is already complete.

Ratcliffe says the ASKAP is aimed at seeing more of the sky at any one moment, so is less sensitive than the MeerKat.

“People are not confident about the quality of observation from the ASKAP. It's wide and not very deep. The MeerKat looks much deeper.”

Golden answers

The MeerKat architect says what sets SA apart is that it has spent a lot of time doing exercises around what constructing the SKA actually entails. “We have more answers than anyone else on what it actually takes to make the SKA a reality.

“The final string to our bow is that the MeerKat design is very close to the SKA phase 1. So if you want to build an SKA, you can just build a bigger Kat7, but you can't build a bigger ASKAP to get an SKA.”

The SA SKA project has several corporations already supporting it, and a few more deals in the pipeline. So far, it has signed MOUs with Intel SA, IBM, Nokia-Siemens Networks and Seacom. “We're certainly not lagging in the corporate support,” says Ratcliffe.

“But it's been pretty secretive on both sides, so we don't know the full extent of their [Australia's] corporate support.”

No interference

The Australian team has been pushing the radio frequency interference (RFI) card quite strongly, due the sparsely populated site it has selected for the SKA.

However, Ratcliffe says a couple years ago it was true that they had less interference, but SA's legislation is better for future protection and the Astronomy Geographic Advantage (AGA) Act recently introduced is changing things a lot.

It is one of the key regulations that will regulate the SKA site in SA, in terms of RFI as well.

According to Fanaroff, the sites have comparable levels of radio-quietness, but there are no exact figures, so a definitive advantage of one side over the other cannot be spoken of.

Bandwidth dearth

Fanaroff previously said his only concern relates to bandwidth, in terms of costs.

“Very large bandwidth is required for the SKA. We're talking about hundreds of terabits per second. That's more than SA's entire traffic. It's more than America's entire traffic.”

He says SKA SA is in discussions with operators to address the problem.

“If bandwidth costs here are going to be more expensive than in Australia, that's going to make a difference. It's going to be an important number.”

According to Australian media, director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Western Australia Peter Quinn expects the SKA to generate 10 petabits of data to be distributed to computing facilities, storage and researchers every second.

For this reason, he said the country's national broadband network played “an enormous role” in the region's SKA bid.

Fracking threat

Exploration by oil company Shell in the Karoo could also threaten SA's bid.

The company wants to explore for gas in an area of more than 90 000 square kilometres, in the South Western Karoo Basin, through a controversial “fracking” process.

Val Munsami, deputy director-general for research development and innovation at the DST, says the shale gas initiative leaves a big question around the SKA, since it overlaps with the site.

Associate director of the SKA SA project Anita Loots said the actual fracking may cause a problem at a later stage, but the immediate concern is around strong radio signals that will be present, because of the exploration.

Fanaroff says the AGA Act would come into play here. “I don't know if the Act can stop all of Shell's plans, but it can definitely stop them from doing anything that would affect the telescope.”

There is currently a moratorium on any licences for fracking to be done in the area.

2012 decision

The SKA will consist of approximately 3 000 dish-shaped antennae and other hybrid receiving technologies that will be spread over a vast area of up to 3 000km.

Research areas will include observational radio astronomy, radio astronomy instrumentation, digital signal processing, distributed data processing and RF broadband feeds, receivers and cryogenic packages.

The announcement of the successful bidder will be made in 2012 and construction is scheduled to start around 2016.

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