IYA 2009 MALTA
  Square Kilometre Array
 

Great Expectations for Great Experiments
University of Malta and Oxford
Square Kilometre Array Conference
Press Release


The dawn of 2009 will see the world's most accomplished astronomers
visiting our shores. Their goal, is not `solely' to bask in the
copious historical and cultural attractions offered by our island, but
to discuss the future of one of the European Union's flagship
technical projects for the next seven years, namely the design of the
world's largest radio astronomical instrument – the Square Kilometre
Array (SKA). The EU, however, is but one of the players buying into
the future Radio Astronomy instruments with other major players such
as the USA, China and South America playing a key role in the design
and realization of this instrument.

The stakes are, pardoning the pun, astronomical, since once built to
the envisaged specifications, the telescope will provide the most
rigorous tests of General Relativity, measure the properties of every
single galaxy in the entire universe, as well as investigate the
possibility of life beyond our solar system. The price for such
answers is not cheap with current estimates hovering around the 1.5
Billion Euro mark. This however is not all, since once built the
telescope will have to be run and maintained with such costs expected
to top 100M Euros annually.

So what does 1.5 Billion Euros buy you ?

For that price, the SKA will have a radio-wave collecting area
equivalent to a million square metres and will be 30 times more
sensitive than any other radio telescope in the world. Furthermore,
the SKA will be able to survey the sky at least 10,000 times faster
than any imaging radio telescope ever built. The SKA will be an
aperture synthesis instrument. Signals from separated antennas will be
combined mathematically via fast data links to a central
supercomputer, providing an angular resolution equivalent to that of a
telescope having a diameter of more than 3000 km.

In order to achieve both high brightness sensitivity and high fidelity
images of the radio sky, the elements of the SKA will be distributed
in an inner core array and in groups of receiving elements located
from hundreds of metres to several 1000 km away from the core. The
core antennas will act as "radio wide angle lens" that can monitor the
sky constantly while more conventional radio dishes operate as a
"radio camera" (comparable to an optical CCD camera) to provide high
quality images. The signals from the stations" will be transported
back to a central processing engine where the data will be anipulated
to form images and time series, and to combat the effects of radio
frequency interference (RFI) signals.

Due to the inherent sensitive nature of the instrument, the telescope
will have to be located in a remote location as far away as possible
from human generated interference such as TV and radio stations, with
two countries currently tied for hosting the telescope, the Western
Australian desert or the South African Karoo desert.

The key feature of the SKA - its enormous collecting area - can only
be realised by moving away from traditional telescope designs and by
constructing efficient, broadband, low-cost antennas capable of
simultaneous multiple fields of view. This goes hand-in-hand with the
development of low-cost, low-noise radio-frequency amplifiers and
highly-integrated receivers.

Several innovative approaches are being investigated to find the
optimum enabling technology solutions for the science goals described
above. Wide ranging approaches are being tested on scientifically
interesting scales in many parts of the world: in the USA with the
ATA, in Australia with MIRA, in South Africa with KAT, in China with
FAST, and in Europe with LOFAR and the SKADS programme. The collective
knowledge gained from developing, constructing and operating these SKA
pathfinders is being channelled into the final SKA design, in order to
take full advantage of this globally developed innovative technology

Malta itself, is currently vying for a position on such a prestigious
and lofty mission through Dr Kristian Zarb Adami, who holds a role as
a lecturer at the University of Malta and post-doctoral fellowship at
Oxford.

The aim of the design team, in Oxford, being led by Kris Zarb-Adami
aims to bring the concept of an early-digital, software defined system
such as those developed for mobile phones to the radio astronomy
world. Furthermore, through this design concept it will become
possible to marry the mass-manufacturing experience of the
semiconductor world which Kris obtained whilst working for
STMicroelectronics (Malta) and UK with the stringent specifications
demanded to deliver the science required from the instrument. This
will allow the telescope to be built with reliability, durability
whilst keeping the cost in perspective.

Whilst society may think that such a telescope is far-removed from the
daily challenges one faces, but indeed producing the parts and
deploying them in one of the world's harshest climates provides
challenges in the ICT and engineering sector, not only as it involves
powering the equivalent of 100,000 houses in a remote area, but the
amount of data generated in an hour is equivalent to the data
bandwidth required by the whole of Malta in a day.

Through his position in Oxford and the continuous support from
Professor Charles Sammut of the University of Malta, Kris has already
invited students from the University of Malta to join him in Oxford
for summer projects with the aim of having five maltese students from
the engineering, ICT and Science faculties doing their Ph.Ds as joint
degrees between Oxford Astrophysics and the University of Malta.

To bring this closer to home, on January 8 and 9, the old university
in Valletta will host the leading scientists and engineers partaking
in the SKA, where they will come to our island to discuss the future
of the telescope before the next phase of EU funding comes online in
June. This meeting will be instrumental in determining the subsequent
design directions of such a telescope and to ensure that Europe and
Malta are at the helm of the next stages of the development.

In fact, the purpose of such a meeting is to set out the goals and
roadmap for the next four years, the most critical ones, which will
advance from the drawing board to the realization of the first
thousand receivers of the telescope. It is indeed anticipated that one
of the outcomes of this meeting will be an understanding between the
University of Malta and that of Oxford to further collaboration in the
realms of physics, ICT and engineering with the primary focus of
developing tomorrow's scientists and engineers.

Whilst the natural ability of Maltese students has never been in
doubt, the opportunities for postgraduate study have until now been
limited and 2009 is the year in which the department of Physics hopes
to address this issue with a view of developing the future engineers,
physicists and employers of Malta.

 
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