9 mins read 20 Apr 2021

Australian Government Investing Big in the SKA Mega-Science Project

A new $387 million investment in Australia’s first mega-science project, the Square Kilometre Array, will go towards boosting the local economy, providing jobs and enhancing computing capabilities as development gears up for the massive project.

The Australian Government has announced a $387 million investment in further development for Australia’s first mega-science infrastructure project, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), located in Western Australia.

The investment into building the world’s largest radio telescope is expected to benefit Australia’s space community by providing 230 ongoing positions over the 50-year expected life of the telescope, as well as create more than 350 jobs during its construction phase, expected to last through to the end of this decade.

“This $387 million investment highlights that science and advanced manufacturing are at the heart of my government’s National Economic Recovery Plan from the COVID recession,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

“Our investment in the construction and operations of the SKA will build our manufacturing capacity within the highly-skilled technology sector and enable major scientific breakthroughs to be made right here in Western Australia.”

“The SKA will help our scientists make more discoveries than we can imagine today. Whether it’s better understanding the origin and future of our stars and galaxies to how gravity works across the universe,” he said.

“The SKA means more jobs for Australia and it puts us in the driver’s seat for scientific discoveries.”

The SKA itself will be made up of two telescopes – one located in Australia, the other in South Africa, with both telescopes working collaboratively to achieve complementary science goals. In Australia, over 131,000 antennas (which are shaped like metallic Christmas trees) that form part of the SKA-Low will tune into lower frequency emissions from deep space (50 MHz – 350 MHz). Across the ocean, SKA-Mid will feature 197 traditional-looking radio antenna dishes that’ll be searching for signals in the higher frequency range of 350 MHz – 15.4 GHz.

Fast facts about both the SKA-Low (Australia) and SKA-Mid (South Africa). SKA-low will cover the lower end of the frequency range, whilst SKA-mid will go higher. Credit: SKAO telescope brochure.

Some of the ambitious science goals that the SKA is hoping to achieve (and currently working towards through precursor and pathfinder projects) include deep studies into how fast the Universe is expanding, rigorously testing Einstein’s gravitational theory, learning more about exotic objects like pulsars and black holes, and contributing towards the biggest question of them all – are we alone in the Universe?

Additionally, Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Christian Porter said processing this data onshore would secure opportunities for Australian organisations and scientists to innovate at the cutting edge of computing and modern manufacturing.

“This new investment will build on our $1.5 billion Modern Manufacturing Strategy and be a significant boost to the space sector, which is one of the strategy’s six priority sectors. It will strengthen our efforts to develop cutting edge industries with a global reach.” 

“As well as creating hundreds of local jobs, our economic modelling indicates the project will attract an estimated $1.8 billion in foreign income flows into Australia as a result of the SKA’s first 30 years of operations,” he said.

“I am very pleased that the development of the SKA in my home state will also benefit local communities. Our funding includes the provision of fibre-optic connectivity to communities near the SKA, which is at CSIRO’s Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory.”

The SKA is an international collaboration between 16 member countries, including Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

How the SKA holds up in resolution, survey speed and sensitivity against other radio telescopes. Credit: SKA Organisation.

When in full operation, the SKA will be collecting and transmitting seven terabytes of data per second due to its data collecting capabilities, which are expected to advance computing, storage, and information transfer. As such, $64.4 million from this investment will be used to establish a specialist supercomputing centre, to be based in Perth, to process the unprecedented amounts of data that will be generated by the SKA.

“When the telescope is switched on, it will open the floodgates to a massive amount of data, as signals from all over the Universe pour in—it’s an enormous and very exciting challenge for us,” said Dr Karen Lee-Waddell, Director of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Regional Centre (AusSRC), a collaboration between International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, and the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre.

“The flow of data will be roughly 100,000 times faster than your average home broadband speed.”

“Each year, we’ll store around 600 petabytes coming from the SKA telescopes for astronomers and astrophysicists from all over the world to access and analyse,” she said.

“To put that into perspective, Netflix’s collection of movies is currently around 15,000 titles, and we’ll be storing 10,000 times more data than this each year.”

Credit: SKA Organisation.

Credit: SKA Organisation.

In Addition to Federal Government funding, the state of Western Australia has invested funding in supporting ICRAR, helping build jobs and increase research, innovation, and diversification in the region.

Executive director of ICRAR, Professor Peter Quinn, said, “This is an astronomical day for science in WA and Australia.”

“After almost thirty years of design, development and preparation, this investment by the Commonwealth Government sends a message to the international community that Australia is fully ready to start building the SKA,” he said.

“All Australians should be proud that this country is going to host the SKA, one of the biggest science projects in human history.”

Mark Stickells, Pawsey Executive Director, standing in front of the Magnus Supercomputer. Credit: Pawsey Supercomputing Centre.

The iconic Quokka is the inspiration for the name of the new supercomputer at Pawsey Supercomputing Centre. Credit: The Rottnest Island Authority.

To help make all the computing magic happen, the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre has also been established in Western Australia, recently unveiling their new powerful supercomputer named Setonix, the scientific name for one of Australia’s most loved Marsupials, the Quokka.

Working as part of the SKA’s Science Data Processor (SDP) Consortium, Pawsey’s current supercomputers are already adding value by providing data storage and information processing services to existing on-site telescopes, such as the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA).

“The Australian government’s existing $70m capital refresh is already powering improvements to the performance and scientific discoveries made by ASKAP and MWA and will accelerate this further when Setonix is fully commissioned in 2022,” said Pawsey’s Executive Director, Mark Stickells.

“The first phases of Setonix are currently being constructed in the USA and we will see them on the floor at Pawsey in mid-2021.  In the meantime, a new HPC cluster “Garrawalla” named for the Wajarri word for spider after the MWA telescopes) has been commissioned and we’ve installed new ingest nodes which have greatly accelerated the performance of ASKAP.”

“We’re incredibly excited about the future for radio astronomy in Australia and globally through the SKA project. World-class science is providing an impetus for continued innovation and advances in computing power and data science,” he said. 

“The relationship between advances in this science and the continued advances in high-performance computing extends over 70 years. The spirit and endeavour in the pioneering experiments in Australia in this field by Dr Pawsey, Dr Payne Scott and others continues to this day, and this will have implications and benefits for this world, as we strive to unlock the mysteries of the Universe.”

Supporting Communities and Building More Science

An SKAO staff member on-site at the MRO during the installation of the SKA-low antennas. Credit: ICRAR/Curtin.

Development of the SKA will occur at the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO), located 800 km north-east of Perth. This region has been the home of the Wajarri Yamaji people for thousands of years and features a number of existing world-class telescopes.

"Development of the SKA is really gaining momentum. As Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO is proud to be helping meet Australia’s commitments as co-host of the SKA Observatory," said CSIRO Acting Chief Scientist Dr Sarah Pearce. 

"Not only are we building Australia’s capability in science and innovation, but the project will also provide training, education and economic benefits for the Wajarri Yamaji community while protecting their heritage.”

The MRO is located far away from humans and cities, in an established Australian Government radio-quiet zone (which extends out to a diameter of 520 km from its centre), where no electromagnetic interference from transmitting devices – like antennas, phones, and televisions are permitted. It even boasts its own power station consisting of solar arrays, a lithium-ion battery and four diesel generators.

An Indigenous Land Use Agreement is in place for the MRO to operate, which also provides benefit to the traditional Wajarri owners of the land, and includes educational, social, economical benefits such as cadetship and mentoring programs.

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) located at Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. Credit: CSIRO

Aerial view of the MWA telescope, showcasing the tiles with the 4 x 4 formation the antennas are positioned in. Credit: ICRAR/Curtin University.

Currently, on the location of where the SKA will be built, CSIRO’s ASKAP is already conducting deep science, with a number of recent breakthroughs such as completing the fastest radio surveylocalisation of the elusive FRBs, or the detection of ‘radio stars’ in southern skies.

As is the MWA, an international project led by Curtin University – which has also started producing a comprehensive and detailed view of the ancient echo remnants from supernovae across the galaxy, participated for demonstrator technology involving space situational awareness and scanned 10 million stars searching for alien technosignatures.

Additionally, a third instrument – known as EDGES (run by Arizona State University) is also located at the MRO.

Whilst these investments will now start to propel the SKA project on its pathway towards construction, the first few steps will involve more of the administrative tasks such as building contracts, hiring staff and signing off on agreements before construction commences.

Nonetheless, the excitement for the project across the Australian space community continues to build as we take these early first steps of working towards a powerful new instrument that we will have in Australia’s backyard which will revolutionise nearly all fields of astronomy and space science.

Take the virtual tour around the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. 

Video Credit: Dept. of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources.

We acknowledge the Wajarri Yamatji as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site.