Square Kilometre Array prototype 'scope achieves first light

SKAMPI was made in China, driven by Docker, located in South Africa, and aimed at the stars

One of the radio telescope designs to be used by the Square Kilometre Array has achieved first light.

Known as SKAMPI, the 'scope was designed by a team whose members hailed from ten nations and built in China. The model tested last week was assembled in 2018 in the Karoo region of South Africa, which will host some of the SKA's thousands of 'scopes.

Tests commenced in 2019, and the SKA org last week explained that technical commissioning work such as "system evaluation, radio frequency interference testing and performance testing took place until early 2022."

That effort helped the SKA team to create system design qualification documentation. SKA boffins have since worked to enable robotic operations of the instrument, and Docker-based software tools to make that possible.

"We have performed first-light observations with SKAMPI in the S-band at frequencies between 1.75 and 3.5GHz, demonstrating the telescope's spectral and pulsar capabilities with imaging of the radio emission of the Southern Sky and detection of the Vela pulsar," reported SKAMPI project scientist Hans-Rainer Klöckner of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR).

Here's what it captured: the Southern sky at 2.5GHz wavelength. The frame gray section of the image shows the complete sky in galactic coordinates with the Galactic Center in the middle. The false color image shows radio emission from the part of the sky which is accessible to the telescope in South Africa. Besides radio emission from the Galactic Center (Sgr A), the bright radio galaxy Cen A, both Magellanic Clouds and star forming areas in Orion and Vela show up in the image.

First light image from SKA SKAMPI

Credit: SKAMPI Team

The SKA org is chuffed by the image, celebrating it for showing SKAMPI "is working as expected, and although the uncalibrated measurements are still affected by radio frequency interference (RFI), atmospheric and system variations, the image already reveals much of the characteristic radio emission of our Milky Way and external galaxies such as Centaurus A."

The outfit was also pleased to report that tests of the dish's pulsar mode worked, detecting the Vela pulsar.

The SKA-MPIfR telescope (SKAMPI) in the Karoo, South Africa. Credit:© MPIfR / Gundolf Wieching

The SKA-MPIfR telescope (SKAMPI) in the Karoo, South Africa. Credit:© MPIfR / Gundolf Wieching – Click to enlarge

While SKAMPI has been a success, much remains to be done. Work on this 'scope will inform development of the 197-dish SKA-Mid telescope – currently under construction in South Africa.

The project will also see the SKA-Low facility built in Australia, which will house 131,072 log-periodic antennas spread across 512 sites.

And then there's all the back-end compute and storage needed to handle the streams of data all those observatories will produce – a topic The Register will monitor.

In other SKA news, in early January India signed up to become a full member of the Square Kilometre Array. ®

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