The SKA project – an overview for industry
The international SKA project aims to construct the first stage (SKA1) of the world’s largest radio telescope – around 50 times more sensitive than present instruments – by around 2025.
The scale of the SKA, and the inherent requirement to ‘productise’ and mass-produce many of its components, requires new and innovative levels of industry participation, beyond that experienced in other radio-astronomy projects such as the ALMA instrument in Chile, the International LOFAR Telescope (an SKA pathfinder facility), and the SKA precursor projects of MeerKAT, HERA, ASKAP and MWA.
The SKA Observatory will comprise two components. One will be in the Karoo region of South Africa, with slightly less than 200 dishes, incorporating the MeerKAT SKA precursor and equipped with single pixel feeds, and with a frequency range from 350 MHz to 14 GHz. The other will be a sparse aperture low frequency array (with just over 130,000 dipole antennas) covering 50-350 MHz built at the Murchison Radio astronomy Observatory (MRO) site in Western Australia, home of CSIRO’s ASKAP SKA precursor telescope, and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) SKA precursor – a low-frequency radio telescope operating between 80 and 300 MHz. MWA was developed by an international collaboration, including partners from Australia, India, New Zealand, and the United States.
Coming later, SKA2 will be a much larger array of coherently connected antennas spread over a continental scale, with an aggregate antenna collecting area of up to 106m2 at the longest wavelengths. A key scientific opportunity is to exploit the wide field-of-view (FoV) mid-frequency aperture arrays and/or PAF receptors to carry out fast, sensitive observations of the sky over large areas (surveys), enabled by the most up-to-date signal-processing technology available. Designed with a baseline frequency range of 50 MHz to 14 GHz, SKA2 will eventually produce images and other data over wavelengths from around 4.3 metres (70 MHz) to 3 centimetres. In preparation for this, a technology development programme for the future PAF programme will form part of the SKA1 scope.
The SKA Office controls overall project management, under the leadership of the SKA Director-General, and Head of Project. Domain specialists under the SKA Architect, specialist systems engineers under a Chief Systems Engineer, and Engineering Project Managers, are the core groups for SKA project realisation. These are complemented by a Science Group, Communications, administrative and legal departments, and a Strategy/Policy Group with oversight of industry engagement and procurement.
Participation is anticipated with a variety of organisations, among them niche R&D companies, followed by increasing engagement through commercial contracts with medium-high volume manufacturers, technology systems vendors, site services and installation firms, and power and data transmission specialists. Engagement is anticipated with larger technology and civil engineering firms, and is also encouraged with smaller local vendors, including industry teaming arrangements that take advantage of supply chains. A measure of success of this strategy will be the extent that industry can deliver the required technologies and services against profitable ‘best value’ contracts.
Industry participation with the SKA is already occurring through strategic positioning (e.g. early interactions and contact with the project office), collaborative development work (including liaison with Member country industry consortia), and paid/unpaid involvement at the pre-construction phase. Involvement may be direct with SKA HQ, or via a member country procurement pathway.
Industry involvement profile
The SKA Office has no preconceived notions as to the size, location, structure, or governance of potential suppliers to the project. However, the following may be a helpful guide to organisational profile characteristics that reflect the nature of the project;
- Reputation. The SKA will require technologies, goods and services from dependable suppliers who are likely to have a demonstrated track record of working successfully with highly innovative partners;
- Flexibility. The nature of the SKA instrument, its ‘greenfield’ location, and cutting edge design, means that not all development, integration, and construction problems will have been entirely solved at contract award time. Suppliers with experience in this environment will realise the need to factor in a degree of flexibility and tolerance when engaging with the SKA project, and avoid a ‘contract variations claim’ stance;
- Approach to risk. While there is certainly technological risk to the project, the astronomical community has deep understanding and experience of the effort required at the test and commissioning stage of the SKA. The pre-construction phase especially is highly collaborative between suppliers, and SKA engineers and scientists, and software specialists. Potential suppliers should understand that final performance is achieved only after extensive configuration testing and systems integration work, and appropriate levels of contingency for unknown factors should also be considered;
- System Reliability. It is expected that some suppliers will have experience in the defence sector, reflecting its high reliance on cutting edge electronics and software. It should be realised though, that while the SKA is no less demanding in terms of technology, individual component failure leading to a fraction of the instrument being unserviceable for a period is possibly acceptable. Potential suppliers should clearly understand the reliability requirements and match their offer to the specific project application; and
- Extended relationships. Development and construction of the SKA will explore and reveal many new applications and know-how across fields as diverse as high-capacity data transport, remote power management, Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) mitigation, ‘systems of systems’ control and behaviour, and even human management challenges. Organisations are encouraged to look beyond supply contracts and seriously consider the potential for other (non-financial) project involvement benefits including exploitation of IP in adjacent markets, organisational learning, and capability expansion.
SKA Domains with potential for industry involvement
|Broadband, active, phased arrays for aperture and focal plane applications|
|Decade bandwidth feed antennas for dishes|
|High dynamic range (>70 dB) image formation using sparsely-sampled Fourier plane data|
|High-speed (Tb/s) digital fibre optic links for distance regimes extending from 100 m to >3000 km|
|High-speed digital signal processing engines (Pb/s) and ultra-fast supercomputing (at exaflop rates)|
|Low-cost, high-speed (Gs/s) analogue to digital converters|
|Low-cost, mass manufacturing of small to medium diameter dishes|
|Low-noise, highly integrated, receivers for both cryogenic and uncooled applications|
|Outreach and public education|
|Power design and Engineering|
|Radio-frequency interference mitigation using coherent and incoherent techniques|
|Site studies and infrastructure engineering|
|SKA scheduling, operations and maintenance models|
|Software engineering for robust, intelligent, array control and data processing|
Long term benefits
In the longer term, the SKA Organisation is keen to see broader industry benefits flowing from involvement with the project, for example:
- The opportunity to grow and hone the creative energies of the best professionals in an imaginative project whose aim is no less than to chart the history of the Universe;
- The ability to develop and perfect leading-edge techniques and products in a very demanding application and to interact with highly technologically sophisticated users;
- The ability to generate and share information with other R&D partners – both institutional and industrial – in a benign and commercially non-threatening environment;
- The visibility flowing from association with an innovative, high profile, international mega-science project; and
- The potential for early involvement contracts with tangible payback in a funded, cutting-edge project spanning a wide range of infrastructure, engineering and computing disciplines.
SKA industry engagement is anticipated to fall broadly into three areas, characterised as; strategic positioning (teaming, market and industry exploitation, specialist exchanges); industry development (business creation, new sectors, IP generation, supply chain integration); industry participation; (contracts awarded, jobs and skills maintained, industry collaboration with academia).
Communication of opportunities for the overall SKA project
The SKA Organisation’s main communications are via:
- Regular updates posted on the SKA Organisation website (skatelescope.org);
- Promotion through newsletters, and media releases;
- Posting of public tenders on appropriate websites; and
- Direct communications (telephone, email, etc.)
In addition, the SKA Organisation’s may utilise other channels from time to time, including:
- Provision of information and facilitation of project briefings to industry;
- Early release of indicative technical specifications to permit industry to begin research and development of detailed proposals;
- Support of meetings and workshops with industry groups, for example in supporting National Days in Member countries;
- General communication via this Industry Engagement Strategy.
Potential suppliers can become aware of SKA supply opportunities through;
- Prior involvement with one or more SKA stakeholders;
- Attendance at a local, or SKA Office-organised, briefing or conference;
- Announcements in an SKA newsletter or website material;
- Active seeking of markets by industry Business Development personnel;
- Notification from a public database of SKA (and pre-cursor) vendors;
- Via any SKA Global Capability Assessment process;
- Public advertising of business opportunities (EoI, RfP, etc);
- Direct approach by an SKA stakeholder, Member country agency, or person;
- Membership of an industry group, e.g. SKA industry consortium; and
- Encouragement by government agencies.
A guide for industry Involvement with the SKA can be downloaded here.