Brexit Britain win! UK dishes out £15m to build ‘brain’ of largest radio observatory

Brexit Britain win! UK dishes out £15m to build ‘brain’ of largest radio observatory

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The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) will allow scientists to explore the evolution of the early universe and the processes that led to the formation of galaxies, search for evidence of extra-terrestrial life and perform extreme tests of general relativity. The international project will comprise two cutting-edge arrays: one of 197 radio telescope dishes located in South Africa and the other made up of 130,000 low-frequency antennas in Western Australia. However, the headquarters of the project are based at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England.

Science Minister George Freeman said: “It is no surprise that the UK’s outstanding scientists are playing such a vital role in shaping the future of this cutting-edge global observatory, backed by £15 million government funding.

“As well as providing the foundation for new galaxy-level discoveries, this award will help to guarantee future contracts for UK industry, secure skilled jobs and develop a highly-transferable technology in the UK.

This, he added, will “channel more money back into the UK economy.

“This reflects the incredible skill of our science community, who are working hand-in-hand with industry to ensure the UK continues to grow as a global science superpower.”

An artist's impression of the SKA in South Africa

The UK Government has awarded £15million of towards the ‘brain’ of the largest radio telescope (Image: Creative Commons / SPDO / TDP / DRAO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

The Andromeda Galaxy

The SKAO will allow scientists to study how galaxies form (Image: Getty Images)

The arrays’ software system — which has been funded via the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) — will serve to direct the telescopes’ observations, translate signals received into usable data, and detect any hardware issues.

High performance computing and software design will be essential to handle the influx of collected data — expected at 8 terabits (the equivalent of 1,600 digital movies) per second — and enable on-going processing at regional centres.

According to the STFC, the UK has already played a “vital role” in the development of the software architecture during the observatory’s design phase and will continue to take the lead in this area now the telescopes are being constructed.

It is expected that both arrays will be complete by the end of the decade, and will have an operating lifespan of more than 50 years.

Among the institutions contributing to the project are the universities of Cambridge, Manchester and Oxford.

They will be joined by researchers from the STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Chilton, the Daresbury Laboratory in Halton and the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh.

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An artist's impression of an SKAO antenna

SKAO will include 130,000 low-frequency antennas in Western Australia (Image: Swinburne Astronomy Productions for SKA Project Development Office)

Science Minister George Freeman

Science Minister George Freeman said the project will ‘channel more money back into the UK economy’ (Image: PA Images)

The UK Government is the largest contributor to the SKAO project, and has committed to provide 15 percent of the total construction and operating costs from 2021–2030.

STFC chair and SKAO Council member Professor Mark Thomson, said: “The UK continues to play a leading role in the SKAO and the development of its telescopes.

“For any large scientific endeavour, the linchpin of its success lies in the infrastructure.

“Without the power to process and organise the vast amounts of information these telescopes will gather, we could not make the important discoveries.

“With the skills and expertise of our researchers and colleagues in industry, the UK will deliver the computing brain and nervous system of the telescopes to enable the observations and unlock the science.”

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Jodrell Bank

The SKAO headquarters are based at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England (pictured) (Image: Creative Commons / Mike Peel)

The software development for SKAO will also involve input from industry partners.

STFC project manager Conrad Graham said: “Involvement with the SKA project brings significant benefits for the UK, not just in terms of direct economic returns on investment, but also via innovation and technological spin offs, driven by the requirements of the project.

“The award of new contracts will provide opportunities for UK industry to engage with the project across all areas of SKA software design.

“As a result of the UK’s participation and the SKAO’s policy of fair work return, the UK is leading on seven high-value construction contracts, which will see the creation of significant new opportunities for UK industry.”

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