Approaching a technological challenge on the scale of the SKA Telescope is formidable.
The Square Kilometre Array once complete will provide over a million square metres of collecting area, with thousands of dishes, and up to a million low-frequency antennas connected using the highest speed communications network ever envisaged in the field of astronomy, feeding data at rates which will dwarf modern data transmission scales over the Internet.
This huge increase in scale demands a revolutionary break from traditional radio telescope design and radical developments in processing, computer speeds and the supporting technological infrastructure.
Combining the signals from the antennas will generate so much data, that local stations will be required just to combine and reduce it to more manageable packages for distribution to supercomputers and then on to scientists all over the world.
Built over two sites in Australia and Africa, the SKA will achieve both high sensitivity and high-resolution images by having antennas densely distributed in the central region of the arrays and then positioned in clusters along spiral arms – the clusters will become more widely spaced further away from the centre.
A phased approach: The construction of the SKA will be phased. Phase 1 (SKA1) will constitute about 10% of the full telescope and will consist of two instruments: dishes (SKA1-mid) in Africa and low-frequency antennas (SKA1-low) in Australia.
Phase 2 (SKA2) will extend both instruments and may see the addition of mid-frequency aperture arrays in Africa. The phased construction of the telescope will mean that the SKA can start operating and producing valuable science before overall construction is completed.
Phase 1 will take place between 2018 and 2023, with early science observations being conducted as early as 2020 with a partial array, while Phase 2 work will commence in parallel and last until the late 2020s.
The SKA will drive technology development particularly in information and communication technology.
Spin off innovations in this area will benefit other systems that process large volumes of data from geographically dispersed sources. The computing requirements that the SKA will need to handle this volume of data will be comparable to that of the largest computers in the world in the early 2020s – systems around ten times the size of today’s biggest machines, whilst the data processing and amounts of data will compete with that generated by the entire Internet, facilitating the need for a new kind of high-speed network.
The energy requirements of the SKA, with its remote locations isolated from major power grids, also presents an opportunity to accelerate technological development in scalable renewable energy generation, distribution, storage and demand reduction.
Pivotal SKA technology is being demonstrated with a suite of precursor and pathfinder telescopes and with design studies by SKA groups around the world. Key SKA technologies will be derived from these and many solutions will be selected and integrated into the final instrument.