Australia designs infrastructure for world’s largest telescope

A team of Australian engineers and scientists has designed the local infrastructure for the world’s largest radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The SKA will explore the universe in unprecedented detail, doing so hundreds of times faster than current facilities.

Antennas will be located in both Australia and southern Africa.

The SKA Infrastructure Australia consortium, led by CSIRO and industry partner Aurecon Australia, has designed everything from supercomputing facilities, buildings, site monitoring and roads, to the power and data fibre distribution that will be needed to host the instrument at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in remote Western Australia.

The project has presented unique technical challenges.

CSIRO’s SKA Infrastructure Consortium director, Antony Schinckel, said the team is setting the groundwork to host 132,000 low-frequency SKA antennas in Australia.

“The data flows will be on the scale of petabits, or a million billion bits, per second – more than the global internet rate today, all flowing into a single building in the Murchison.

“To get this data from the antennas to the telescope’s custom supercomputing facilities we need to lay 65,000 fibre optic cables,’ said Schinckel.

CSIRO and Aurecon engineers drew on their experience working together on the infrastructure design for the Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope, CSIRO’s 36-dish radio telescope that is already operating at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory.

Aurecon’s senior project engineer, Shandip Abeywickrema, said the design team’s biggest challenge was minimising radio ‘noise’ created by the systems placed at the high-tech astronomy observatory.

This is essential to avoid drowning out the faint signals from space that the telescope is designed to detect.

“Containing the interference created by our own computing and power systems is an unusual construction requirement,” said Abeywickrema.

“We’re trying to reduce the level of radio emissions by factors of billions.

“For example, the custom supercomputing building is effectively a fully welded box within a box, with the computing equipment to be located within the inner shield, while support plant equipment will be located in the outer shield.”

Australian SKA director, David Luchetti said that while the CSIRO-Aurecon team has been working on the infrastructure designs for Australia, a second consortium had designed the infrastructure for the South African SKA site.

“CSIRO and Aurecon have delivered world-class designs, and the collaboration between the Australian and South African infrastructure consortia is a great example of the massive global effort behind the SKA project,” he said.

“Infrastructure isn’t usually seen as an arena for innovation, but this project has produced innovative designs, in Australia, which may have applications beyond astronomy.

“In addition to the incredible scientific potential of this project, we expect that the SKA will generate many spin-off benefits that we can’t yet anticipate.

“We want to make sure Australia is best placed to capture these benefits,” said Luchetti.

This design work was funded by the Australian government and the European Union.