The University of Oxford is among six UK institutions that will receive funding from the government’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to develop software and computer hardware for the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO). In addition to Oxford, the other recipients include the Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (Harwell Campus), STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory (Liverpool City Region), and STFC’s Astronomy Technology Centre (Edinburgh).
SKAO, an intergovernmental organisation dedicated to radio astronomy, is tasked with building and operating the two largest and most complex radio telescopes in history. Its goal is to explore the evolution of the early universe, including processes that culminate in the creation of galaxies like the Milky Way. The telescopes will be able to survey the sky much faster than existing telescopes, according to UK Research and Innovation. In order to process data in real time at the data rate of eight terabits per second, as well as support the regional processing centres managing over 700 petabytes per year, it will require high-performance computing and software design.
The High Performance Computing and Code Optimisation team based in the Oxford e-Research Centre (OeRC), Department of Engineering Science, will work to enable data processing at these extreme rates alongside partners like NVIDIA and Intel.
“To enable SKAO, we will need to overcome some of the largest computational challenges mankind has faced so far,” Director of the OeRC Professor Wes Armour stated in a University press release. “The volumes and velocities of raw data produced by the telescope and the level of complex processing required to extract interesting scientific results are unprecedented. Specialised software, supercomputers and new computational algorithms must be developed to process data at rates far greater than the current global internet traffic.”
“Using our expertise in algorithm development and GPU computing, we will contribute fundamental software allowing SKAO to realise its scientific potential,” Dr. Karel Adamek, the Oxford team lead, said.
A second team of Oxford scientists is focusing on pulsars and fast-transients in collaboration with physicists from Manchester. Their work centres around mapping our astrophysical understanding onto computer hardware to identify and analyse signals from pulsars and fast radio transients. “We think we will find new rare examples of binary systems to test Einstein’s General Relativity, potentially even a pulsar orbiting a black hole,” Professor Aris Karastergiou, from the physics department, said.
SKAO will comprise 197 15-metre-diameter dishes located in the Karoo region of South Africa and 137,072 two-metre-tall antennae in Australia. In addition to these sites in Australia and South Africa, SKAO is headquartered in the UK on the grounds of the Jodrell Bank UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UK government first signed an agreement to host the SKAO and its global headquarters in February 2021, shortly after the Observatory was launched as an intergovernmental organisation and the UK ratified the SKAO Convention in December 2020. The UK government is the largest contributor to the SKAO, having committed to support 15 percent of the total cost of construction and initial operations from 2021 to 2030.
Construction is expected to be completed by the end of the decade, and the telescopes will operate for over 50 years.
“We have the privilege of working on fundamental science that stimulates the imagination,” Karastergiou added. “The project allows us an opportunity to consider the place of humankind in the universe, at a bleak time.”