SKA technology 'doesn't exist'
Duncan Alfreds, News24
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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