The SKA’s design phase has involved hundreds of engineers around the world, some with decades of experience, others at the start of careers.
Jonas Flygare is a PhD student at Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden, which designed SKA-Mid’s Band 1 receiver. He led the work on a key component – the feed horn that transforms electromagnetic radio waves into a digital signal, which can then be amplified and transferred onwards for processing. Jonas spoke to us about his childhood fascination with robotics, the impact of inspirational lectures, and why he loves being part of Team SKA.
Let’s start at the beginning – can you trace your interest in engineering back to childhood?
When I think about it, it probably all started with Lego and excavator toys. I remember being very entertained by the things I could build from the little Lego bricks, especially if I could add homemade parts to “improve” the model. I was really into the TV show “Robot Wars”, where different engineering teams built remote-controlled robots which then fought each other. I would re-construct these robots in small Lego versions, adding electrical engines to make them move and so on. I was fascinated by excavators at a young age too; the whole concept of a big “robotic” machine and how it worked sparked my interest in engineering.
Was there something specific that set you on this path?
One event in high school particularly inspired me. We were invited to Chalmers University of Technology (where I later did my B.Sc, M.Sc and currently am doing my Ph.D. via Onsala Space Observatory) for an amazing lecture by Rickard Jonsson, about Einstein’s theory of gravity and cosmology.
After that, combining engineering with physics seemed like a perfect fit for me. It’s a bit corny but I was also growing up when the Star Wars movies were re-mastered from the original 70s’ versions, and that fed my enthusiasm for space and technology.
What made you choose this type of engineering? Did you always dream of being involved in the space sector or telescope design?
Not exactly, but halfway through my masters studies I realised that I didn’t want to continue down the theoretical physics track I was on. So I moved into more applied science and engineering courses, such as computational electromagnetics and antenna engineering.
I got an internship in the antenna group at the electrical engineering department, which led me more into my current field. It was another internship, this time at the Onsala Space Observatory, where I realised that engineering relating to space was what I wanted to do – I guess it was the Star Wars connection that came back in a way, that mix of technology and space.
“It means a lot to be a part of this. To have been in the team that made one of the first receiver designs for the SKA dishes is pretty special.”
How did that lead to you being involved with the SKA?
During the internship at Onsala I was supposed to be working on something different. However, I was introduced to the SKA by the former head of the electronics lab there, Miroslav Pantaleev, who gave me an opportunity right away to do work on feed design. I’ll be forever grateful for that as it led me to where I am today.
You’re now pursuing a PhD at Onsala – tell us about that.
My main fields of research are antenna feed design, receiver system characterisation and low-noise microwave circuits for radio telescopes. Particularly I work with wideband feed designs, like the low-frequency feed horn for the SKA Band 1.
During my early time at Onsala, I began to really appreciate the fine engineering that goes into electromagnetic and microwave design, and the optimisation procedures you need to make it the best. I understood I was pretty good at what I was doing, and kept learning new things every day so when the opportunity to do a Ph.D. came along, I decided it was the right move.
What does it mean for you to be involved in such a big project so early in your career?
The SKA is an enormous project – when I got involved it had already been planned for several decades, which makes you appreciate how much effort it takes to get the next level of radio astronomy up and running. Through the SKA I have gotten a wide range of skills, perspectives, and connections throughout the world. It means a lot to be a part of this. To have been in the team that made one of the first receiver designs for the SKA dishes is pretty special.
What’s the most exciting thing about being part of Team SKA?
To provide technology for the next generation of astronomical discoveries. In a time with gravitational waves, black holes, exoplanets popping up everywhere, and fast-radio bursts, there are some fantastic discoveries to be made in the near future. It’s pretty cool to figure out how the technology to do this should be designed.
It’s also very exciting to work with such a diverse, international group of people. This gives you a really good network, but also so many lessons learned from different parts of the world. A diverse work environment like the SKA mirrors a diverse society, which is to the benefit of everyone if we are to progress.
As a young engineer, what advice would you give to students who may be considering a career in STEM?
This is not an easy thing to summarise, but the key is to be always curious and want to learn. Question why you are doing a certain project, and learn the motivation for it. Speak up when you don’t understand something, in general this will save you lots of time and you are most likely not the only one in the room who wants to ask.
Trying to learn as many parts of a system as possible will make you not only more useful in different projects, but it’ll help you see the full picture of how it all comes together at the end. Don’t be afraid to try things in your work, even those classified as “non-standard” or not useful. Maybe a certain technology was not ready to be used 30 years ago, but has matured enough now.
When you’re not busy at Onsala or travelling all over the world for work, what do you like to do to unwind?
My favourite hobby currently is a sport called footvolley. It’s like beach volleyball but you can’t use your hands, and you play with a football over the net! We are a small group of people in Gothenburg, Sweden who get together two or three times a week, and we play other teams from Malmö and Stockholm too. In December this year we are organising and competing in the Swedish Footvolley Championship in Gothenburg, so I’m very excited about that!
I also enjoy surfing, an interest which grew during my time living in California during 2012-2013, where I had an internship at an R&D company working on thin-film transistor technology. There’s something special about a smooth wave breaking at sunset on a California beach, and I take the opportunity to go out in the water whenever there is a chance. In terms of travelling, one of my all-time favourite destinations was the Svalbard Islands located between Norway and the North Pole. We went dogsledding there and I’ll remember that fantastic feeling forever.
Read more about Jonas’s work on the SKA, within the Dish design consortium, on our engineering website.