SKA gets ability to monitor sky in unprecedented detail

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The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope has received a data processing boost.

This as an international consortium of computing specialists, led by the University of Cambridge in the UK, has completed the engineering design work of the science data processor (SDP) for the SKA, to the level required for a critical design review.

SA is set to face a shortage of data science skills when the SKA goes live. Data scientists will be required to interpret and analyse the vast amount of data that will be produced by the SKA.

According to the Department of Science and Technology, for "healthy participation" in the SKA, SA will need 200 data scientists when the project is live.

The role of the SDP consortium was to design the computing hardware platforms, software and algorithms needed to process science data into science data products (astronomical images).

Two supercomputers

The SKA SDP will be composed of two supercomputers, one located in Cape Town, to process data from SKA-Mid, and one in Perth, Western Australia, to process data from SKA-Low.

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) scientists, as well as SARAO-funded industry, have been members of the SDP Consortium since the approval of the concept design review in 2012.

SARAO's technical lead for scientific computing, Simon Ratcliffe, was selected as the SDP Consortium system engineer in 2012; and SARAO system engineer, Shagita Gounden, was appointed to the SDP Consortium on a full-time basis to work on the control and monitoring component of the SDP - the system that allows sub-elements within the SDP to communicate with each other, as well as with external elements such as the telescope manager and the central signal processor.

In addition to SARAO's contribution, SA's Space Advisory Company (SAC) and Eclipse Holdings, which were awarded funding from SARAO's Financial Assistance Programme, seconded four engineers to the SDP consortium.

As part of this effort, SAC's data processing system engineer, Ferdl Graser, was appointed as the SDP Consortium system engineer in 2014, and has distinguished himself in this role, culminating in the recently passed critical design review, says SARAO.

The CSIR Centre for High-Performance Computing (CHPC) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) are other South African members of the SDP Consortium.

The CHPC provides compute platform testing and innovation services, by leveraging the significant computing resources it has available, while UCT provides the lead of the SDP delivery work-package through professor Rob Simmonds, from the Department of Computer Science, as well as supporting the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy.

SARAO MD Dr Rob Adam congratulated the SKA SDP Consortium on passing the critical design review and said he was proud of the world-class design work completed by SARAO system engineers, which will contribute to the SKA's ability to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail.

"The unique requirements for the SDP have also driven our specialists to be creative and design unique technologies that allow SARAO to contribute to economic development and commercialisation in South Africa," says Adam.

International effort

The SKA project is an international effort to build the world's largest radio telescope, led by the SKA Organisation based at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester, UK.

The SKA will conduct transformational science to improve our understanding of the universe and the laws of fundamental physics, monitoring the sky in unprecedented detail and mapping it hundreds of times faster than any current facility.

It is not a single telescope, but a collection of telescopes, called an array, to be spread over long distances. The SKA will be constructed in Australia and SA, with a later expansion in both countries and into other African countries.

Already supported by 12 countries (SA, Australia, Canada, China, France, India, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and the UK) the SKA Organisation has brought together some of the world's finest scientists, engineers and policy-makers and more than 100 companies and research institutions in the design and development of the telescope.

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