SKA project brings world together
AN INTERNATIONAL effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope rests on the expertise and experience of the hundreds of women employed in various roles in the multi- billion rand project. From design to execution, this mega-project would not have seen the light of day without the leadership and contribution of women, according to SKA Telescope, a publication on the project. “The SKA has many talented women working across the project, in science, engineering, computing, project management and many other roles, based at SKA Global Headquarters in the UK and in our partner organisations around the world. The SKA’s strength is its diversity: people from many backgrounds, countries and specialisms coming together in this global project to build the world’s largest radio telescope. Designing and building the SKA would not be possible without the input of many talented women and their widespread expertise,” it is stated.
The SKA will be the largest science facility on the planet, with infrastructure spread across three continents on both hemispheres. Its two networks of hundreds of dishes and thousands of antennas will be distributed over hundreds of kilometres in Australia and South Africa, with the Headquarters in the UK. Together with facilities like the James Webb Space Telescope, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the LIGO gravitational wave detector, the new generation of extremely large optical telescopes and the ITER fusion reactor, the SKA will be one of humanity’s cornerstone physics machines in the 21st century. According to the SKA Organisation’s Board of Directors Dr Catherine Cesarsky, It is important to promote the role of women in science because science belongs to everybody. “Women are half of humanity and of course they have every right to be involved in science just like men. Unfortunately too often they’re told or made to feel, as young girls in schools, that this is not the case, and this is wrong. Every woman who has an inclination for science should be able to find it and follow it,” she says. Dr Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro, coordinator of Spanish Participation in the SKA and Researcher, IAA-CSIC, echoed her sentiments: “One of the things I like about working in a project like the SKA is that there is a need to collaborate between many different cultures. There are engineers and scientists, people doing policy, and doing very creative outreach activities.”
Two major events have ensured that South Africa remains on course to build the world’s largest radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array project (SKA few months ago, South Africa signed an important international treaty which will establish the Inter-Governmental Organisation (IGO), a structure that will oversee the delivery and operation of the historic telescope. This historic signing in Rome, Italy last month signals South Africa’s grand entry into the hallowed world of scientific cooperation. South Africa, Australia, China, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, and the United Kingdom signed the historical treaty while India and Sweden, who also took part in the multilateral negotiations to set up the SKA Observatory (SKAO) IGO, await further internal processes before signing the treaty. The SKA will be the largest science facility on the planet, with infrastructure spread across three continents on both hemispheres. Its two networks of hundreds of dishes and thousands of antennas will be distributed over hundreds of kilometres in Australia and South Africa, with the Headquarters in the United Kingdom. Together with facilities like the James Webb Space Telescope, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the LIGO gravitational wave detector, the new generation of extremely large optical telescopes and the ITER fusion reactor, the SKA will be one of humanity’s cornerstone physics machines in the 21st century.
According to Mmamoloko Kubayi- Ngubane, then the South African Minister of Science and Technology, South Africa’s signature on the establishment of the SKAO as an intergovernmental legal entity is a crucial milestone that should be celebrated. “The signing of the Convention puts science diplomacy into practice. Already South Africa has delivered on the MeerKat, a pathfinder to the SKA, and our government looks forward to the next phase of this global initiative in building a platform for this extraordinary scientific achievement,” Kubayi-Ngubane said. She added that what makes this particularly unique is the fact that for the first time, Africa, Asia, Australasia and Europe are committing on an intergovernmental level to collaborate on a large scale science project as equal partners. “This represents the start of a new era for global science governance. International cooperation in science plays a crucial role in fostering international friendship and solidarity and bolster commitment to multilateralism which will assist our world in addressing global challenges like poverty, inequality and climate change,” she explained.
Another major development was the completion, by an international consortium of computing specialists, led by the University of Cambridge in the UK, of the engineering design work of the Science Data Processor (SDP) for the SKA, to the level required for a Critical Design Review (CDR). The role of the SDP consortium was to design the computing hardware platforms, software, and algorithms needed to process science data into astronomical images. The SKA SDP will be composed of two supercomputers, one located in Cape Town, South Africa to process data from SKA-Mid, and one in Perth, Western Australia, to process data from SKA-Low. The SA Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) scientists, as well as SARAO funded industry, have been members of the SDP Consortium since the approval of the concept design review in 2012. SARAO’s Technical Lead for Scientific Computing, Simon Ratcliffe, was selected as the SDP Consortium System Engineer in 2012, and SARAO System Engineer, Shagita Gounden, was appointed to the SDP Consortium on a full-time basis to work on the control and monitoring component of the SDP – the system that allows sub-elements within the SDP to communicate with each other, as well as with external elements such as the Telescope Manager and the Central Signal Processor. In addition to SARAO’s contribution, SA’s Space Advisory Company (SAC) and Eclipse Holdings, who were awarded funding from SARAO’s Financial Assistance Programme (FAP), seconded four engineers to the SDP consortium. As part of this effort, SAC’s Data Processing System Engineer, Ferdl Graser, was appointed as the SDP Consortium System Engineer in 2014 and has distinguished himself in this role, culminating in the recently passed Critical Design Review: for High-Performance Computing (CHPC) and UCT are other SA members of the SDP Consortium.
SKA by Numbers
Two of the world’s fastest supercomputers will be needed to process the unprecedented amounts of data emanating from the telescopes, with some 600 petabytes expected to be stored and distributed worldwide the science community every year or over the equivalent of over half a million laptops worth of data. From late 2020, close to €700 milliaon worth of contracts for the construction of the SKA will start to be awarded to companies and service providers in the SKA member countries, providing a substantial return on investment for those countries. Spinoffs are also expected to emerge from work to design and build the SKA, with start-ups already being created out of some of the design work and impact reaching far beyond astronomy. Close to 700 million euros worth of contracts for the construction of the SKA will start to be awarded soon to companies and service providers in the SKA member countries, providing a substantial return on investment for those countries. SKA becomes the only second intergovernmental organisation in the world dedicated to astronomy after the European Southern Observatory.