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Great Expectations for Great Experiments
University of Malta and University of Oxford
Square Kilometre Array Conference

The dawn of 2009 will see some of the world's most accomplished astronomers visiting our shores. Their goal is not 'solely' to bask in the copious historical and cultural attractions offered by our island, but to also discuss the future of one of the European Union’s flagship technical projects for the next seven years, namely the design of the world’s largest radio astronomical instrument – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The EU, however, is but one of the players buying into the future Radio Astronomy instruments with other major players such as the USA, Australia and South Africa playing a key role in the design and realization of this instrument.

The stakes, pardoning the pun, are astronomical, since once built to the envisaged specifications, the telescope will provide the most rigorous tests of General Relativity, measure the properties of every single galaxy in the entire universe, as well as investigate the possibility of life beyond our solar system. Some of the key science projects are shown in figure 1. Current estimates for such answers hover around the 1.5 Billion Euro mark. Still, this is not all since, once built, the telescope will have to be run and maintained with such costs expected to top 100M Euros annually.

Square Kilometre Array Conference
Measuring and mapping the magnetic fields of nearby galaxies
is also one of the main science drivers of the SKA

Square Kilometre Array Conference
The search for exo-planets, planets similar to ours orbiting
other stars is one of the key science goals of the SKA

Figure 1: Two of the Key Science projects envisaged for the Square Kilometre Array

So what does 1.5 Billion Euros buy you?

For that price, the SKA will have a radio-wave collecting area equivalent to a million square metres making it 30 times more sensitive and 10,000 times faster than any other radio telescope in the world. The telescope will be built using millions of antennae combined to form a 'radio wide angle lens' that can constantly monitor the sky.

Due to the inherent sensitive nature of the instrument, the telescope will have to be located in a remote location as far away as possible from human generated interference such as TV and radio stations. Two regions are currently tied for hosting the telescope; the Western Australian desert or the South African Karoo desert, shown in figure 1.

Square Kilometre Array Conference
The proposed site in Mileura, Western Australia

Square Kilometre Array Conference
The proposed site in the Karoo desert, South Africa

Figure 2: The proposed sites in Western Australia and South Africa

The key feature of the SKA - its enormous collecting area - can only be realised by moving away from traditional telescope designs and by constructing efficient, broadband, low-cost antennas capable of simultaneous multiple fields of view. This goes hand-in-hand with the development of low-cost, low-noise radio-frequency amplifiers and highly-integrated receivers. Such complexity can not be implemented in a single development stage and many of the participants are building pathfinder instruments to ensure that the full system specifications are met. Some of the concept designs are shown in figure 3.

Malta itself, is currently vying for a position on such a prestigious and lofty mission through Dr Kristian Zarb Adami, who holds a role as a lecturer at the University of Malta and a post-doctoral fellowship at Oxford.

The aim of the design team in Oxford, which is being co-ordinated by Zarb Adami, is to bring the concept of an early-digital, software defined system such as those developed for mobile phones to the radio astronomy world. Furthermore, through this design concept it will become possible to marry the mass-manufacturing experience of the semiconductor world which Zarb Adami obtained whilst working for STMicroelectronics (Malta and UK) with the stringent specifications demanded to deliver the science required from the instrument. This will allow the telescope to be built with reliability and durability at an affordable cost.

One possible configuration of the telescope configuration being studied by the design teams in Europe.    The European pathfinder, called LOFAR (Low-Frequency Aperture Array) which will prove many design concepts for the SKA. Each light shows a group of antenna spread around northern Europe

 Square Kilometre Array Conference
The European pathfinder, called LOFAR (Low-Frequency Aperture Array)
which will prove many design concepts for the SKA.
Each light shows a group of antenna spread around northern Europe.

Square Kilometre Array Conference
One possible satellite dish design for receiving radio signals.
This particular one is being designed in the USA.

Square Kilometre Array Conference
Another competing dish design, this particular one being
implemented in the South African pathfinder KAT

Figure 3: Several of the design concepts being implemented globally to ensure full operability of the SKA once it is built.

Through his position in Oxford and the continuous support from Professor Charles Sammut of the University of Malta, Zarb Adami has already invited students from the University of Malta to join him in Oxford for Summer projects with the aim of eventually having five Maltese students from the engineering, ICT and Science faculties doing their Ph.Ds as joint degrees between Oxford Astrophysics and the University of Malta.

To bring this closer to home, on January 8 and 9, the Old University in Valletta will host the leading scientists and engineers partaking in the SKA where they will come to our island to discuss the future of the telescope before the next phase of EU funding comes online in June. This meeting will be instrumental in determining the subsequent design directions of such a telescope and to ensure that Europe and Malta are at the helm of the next stages of the development.

In fact, the purpose of such a meeting is to set out the goals and roadmap for the next four years, these being the most critical ones, which will advance designs from the drawing board to the realization of the first thousand receivers of the telescope. It is indeed anticipated that one of the outcomes of this meeting will be an understanding between the University of Malta and that of Oxford to further collaboration in the realms of physics, ICT and engineering with the primary focus of developing tomorrow’s scientists and engineers.

Whilst the natural ability of Maltese students has never been in doubt, the opportunities for postgraduate study have until now been limited and 2009 is the year in which the department of Physics hopes to address this issue with a view of developing the future physicists, engineers and employers of Malta.

Text: SKA Memo 44
Images: Courtesy of SKA Brochure


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