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UK finally signs off on Square Kilometre Array Observatory Convention

Now to build over 130,000 little 'scopes in nasty hot places. Also in data centers

Amidst the paroxysms of coronavirus and Brexit, the United Kingdom on Wednesday found time to ratify the Convention that formally establishes the SKA Observatory (SKAO), paving the way for the giant radio telescope to be built.

The Convention governing the SKAO requires that at least five nations, including the three host countries – Australia, South Africa, and the UK – must ratify the text. South Africa and Australia have already signed, Portugal did so last week and the Netherlands and Italy had already put pen to paper. The UK gave the relevant treaty the nod in July 2019 but had not signed the convention until this week.

With the ink now dry, the SKAO can now take over the project. Work will start when a first meeting is staged at the SKAO's HQ at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire some time in early 2021.

The organisation has a fair bit to get done. The SKA will include around 3,000 15-metre dishes, plus hundreds of thousands of low-frequency aperture array telescopes for a total of over 130,000 antennas. While design work is well advanced, this kit all needs to be built and installed. Most of the hardware will reside in Australia and South Africa, but some elements will also land in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia.

There’s also the job of ingesting 8.8 terabytes of data per second from each telescope, then filtering out the noise to shrink it into something more manageable and worthy of being analysed. Final annual output is expected to be 130 petabytes a year, still a hard-to-wrangle quantity of data for the world’s astro-boffins.

Exactly what will make this all happen is yet to be revealed, but we already know of 200,000 new AMD cores destined for one Australian supercomputer. Testbeds have also explored the wide-area and data centre networking required to transport data.

Answers to all those challenges have not yet been found. But that’s part of the reason for the project, as it is hoped that just as CERN produced the World Wide Web, the SKA might provide reasons for creation of other massively useful technologies.

Even if the tech the array requires turns out to be too exotic for wider use, it will provide humanity with its best-ever instrument for observing our universe. The planet’s current largest radio telescope is the 196,000m2 Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope in China. The recently-destroyed Arecibo Observatory was a mere 73,000m2. As the SKA’s name implies, its total area will be one square kilometre - one million square metres. ®

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