SKA technology 'doesn't exist'

2011-08-24 13:05

Cape Town - The technology to build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) doesn't exist yet, but it will drive development of technology for South Africa, the project director has said.

"The Square Kilometre Array is an iconic project - it's the biggest telescope in the world," SA SKA project director Dr Bernie Fanaroff told News24.

South Africa's bid for the SKA project aims to build over 3 000 linked radio telescopes in the Northern Cape to enable astronomers to study the ancient history and formation of the universe.

Seven telescopes have been built as a test bed and the next stage of the programme is to build the MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope).

"By working on the Square Kilometre Array and on the MeerKAT as we're doing now, we're developing a group of young people who have skills and capabilities - not just in current technology - but in the next-generation technology," said Fanaroff.


The handling of massive data is one of the most significant challenges in building the SKA and the project will accelerate technological development in SA.

"The technology for the SKA doesn't exist at the present time.

"In order to do what has to be done with the huge data rates that you'll get in the Square Kilometre Array, you need new technologies with order of magnitude improvements in power efficiency; you need exoflop of computing and you need very sophisticated algorithms," Fanaroff said.

The South African team has been working on technology to process the digital signals for the MeerKAT, but the technology for the SKA remains a daunting and elusive challenge with current technology.

Recently, the team signed a memorandum of understanding with Intel to partner in technological development of the MeerKAT.

"Scaling up to the Square Kilometre Array, the science processing will have to work at 8 exaflops, now that's a lot faster than anything currently in existence and these numbers aren't affordable yet.

"Part of the exciting challenges is you need very complex algorithms," said Fanaroff.


He said that progress was being made with the broadband line that was installed on the site, near Carnarvon in the Karoo, and the installation of the seven cold receivers in the antennas.

These work at a temperature of 70K (-203°C) so that they do not "pollute" the raw radio signals from deep space.

"We now have a 10Gbps link working but that can be scaled up to whatever is required by the SKA which, believe it or not, is 400 terabits per second. Now that is fast.

"That means that the Square Kilometre Array will be handling about 200 times the data rate of the entire internet. That is a challenge."

The project will spawn new technology industries as the rollout of the MeerKAT begins with a goal to complete the 64 instruments by 2015.

"There will be new industries in the next 10, 20 years, based in the ICT [information and communications technology] area: We're looking at huge sensor networks, huge data sets - how you analyse these things; how you process them; how you visualise them," said Fanaroff.

He said that this project would see SA play a leading role in these technological developments.

"There's no reason in my mind why South Africa cannot play a leading role in developing those new industries: Not just a follower's role, but a leading role."

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  • Pictureof - 2011-08-24 13:19

    Can I borrow the 10 GP/S to assist in downloading some files, Mweb is taking its sweet time, and the universe isnt going to change that much in the time it will take to download the whole of Pirate Bay.

      Jacques Jones - 2011-08-24 13:39

      i doubt if you would have enough space for everything on piratebay. nice thought though

  • Greg - 2011-08-24 13:41

    Guys, just pls don't let this become another Gauteng toll-road fiasco! I guess what I'm trying to say is: KEEP THE POLITICIANS AND THEIR MUDDY PAWS OUT OF IT!!!

      DirtyDog - 2011-08-24 14:32

      Not the Toll Roads fiasco, what about the Pebble-Bed reactor! That took BILLIONS of rands and they have squat to show for it! Not even the working prototype that we were all promised.

      croix - 2011-08-24 17:29

      Especially the previous ministah of Edyookayshin (failed terribly) - old "speaks-the Queen's-English" but fails wherever she's deployed, the very same and common garden variety 'Pandorer'.

  • Killroy2011 - 2011-08-24 13:44

    Eish ! Thats a lot of band width and at the moment we still use the paraffin and candles system.

  • John Fox - 2011-08-24 13:47

    The plural of antenna is "antennas", an antennae is the things on an insects head. Also there is no degree symbol when the temperature is given in Kelvins, it is simply "70K".

      Valis - 2011-08-24 13:54

      Hehe, you beat me to it :) I'd also like to add that I hope they use open source software for this. If they're going to be processing that much data then OSS is the only way to go. It's fast, stable and not bloated like proprietary software.

      Colin Dovey - 2011-08-24 13:55

      Good to be correct John Fox...but what you are saying will go well above the antennas of the insect population who populate our neck of the woods :-)

      Dmitri - 2011-08-24 15:21

      @Valis, any bets on Ubuntu with Mark Shuttleworth, seeing as he is from SA

      Nutzman - 2011-08-24 15:32

      Read the text. There is no degree symbol with the Kelvin. It's further on with the C????

      David de Bruyn - 2011-08-24 18:43

      @Valis: Open source isn't going to make things faster or more stable. The algorithms and the actual software is going to be responsible for that. Having said that, most of the work will be done by embedded systems running Linux kernels.

  • grimbie1 - 2011-08-24 13:56

    This is great to see that SA is pushing the boundries in space exploration. One wonders what would happen if we positioned radio telescopes on earth and in space then combined the information what would come from that. cant imagine the systems that would be invloved with something on that scale. Now all SA needs to do is keep the scienists from looking at immigrating due to politicle circumstances.

  • coen - 2011-08-24 14:00

    Hope there is no copper cables involved in building this site.

      dogue - 2011-08-24 14:42

      But there's plenty scrap metal in those dishes.

  • Zerotech - 2011-08-24 14:03

    400tb/s != 200 times the speed of the internet What utter rubbish

      dogue - 2011-08-24 14:44

      Ja, I also wondered how they measure the "speed of the internet".

      Paul - 2011-08-24 17:14

      Small difference between "data rate" and speed I would venture to say.

  • CPII - 2011-08-24 14:05

    Exoflops....fookit....suck me sideways!

      basie.pretorius - 2011-08-24 14:16

      As you say fookit what is dat exoflops something like flopjacks with oxo?????

  • Hochang - 2011-08-24 15:13

    After they've finished 'studying the formation of universe' and have that knowledge, how will that knowledge benefit ordinary man or woman on the streets?

      Taurusaurus - 2011-08-24 16:01

      Possibly by restructuring R&D models for technologies which should not exist, based on the current Standard Physics basis? Imagine a high power light bulb that lasts 100 years, emits 200 lumen at a constant rate, and only consumes 1/1000 of the electricity currently utilized by that kind of a bulb. And that's just for starters. For more information and related topic matter, take a look at the recent article on News24 which makes mention of the CERN Hadron Partical Collider.

      Coquine - 2011-08-24 22:36

      It's called progress, and that's how we got stuff like the internet.

  • John Paul - 2011-08-24 19:23

    "There's no reason in my mind why South Africa cannot play a leading role in developing those new industries: Not just a follower's role, but a leading role." This is a remote location. It will need power; it will be cabled from the nearest suitable distribution station; and the cable will be stolen every week. Come down to earth, Far And Off, you are of no earthly use right now.

  • John Paul - 2011-08-24 19:26

    when the thiefs down steal the cables, ESKOM does the power cuts themselves!

  • John Iosi - 2011-08-27 17:24

    South Africa should get the SKA Projectthe location is perfect. There is a worry however regarding duplication. I have examined ALMA project and I see lots of similarities Have we all missed something?

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