The University of Malta is working towards becoming a significant element in key international scientific research in the construction of the Square Kilometre Array, SKA.
The Square Kilometre Array quoted as one of the world’s most exciting international science projects, is set to give humanity new and unparalleled insights into the universe. It will investigate how the first stars and galaxies formed after the big bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and will even search for life beyond Earth. Scientists believe that the SKA’s unparalleled sensitivity and ability to image such huge portions of the sky at up to 10,000 times to the speed of current survey telescopes will produce detailed information and provide answers to many more fundamental questions about mysteries which are baffling scientists today.
Construction of the SKA is due to begin in 2018 using a phased development approach, so scientific output will come even before the project completes and is fully operational in 2024, by which time several thousand combined radio telescopes will be collecting and processing data equivalent to 100 times today’s global internet traffic.
Even before the SKA comes online, a series of demonstrator telescopes and systems are already operational or under development across the world, paving the way for the kinds of technology which the SKA will need to pioneer to make the huge data available to scientists.
The University of Malta has developed a novel, ultra-wideband, low cost antenna intended to be submitted as a contending technology for the SKA project. Its planar structure means that it is easy to manufacture and transport. Although this was initially designed as a low cost solution for the SKA project, it has other applications across sectors such as telecommunications, maritime surveillance and, radar.
For a technology to be selected by the SKA project it must prove itself in a real environment, something not yet achieved for this novel design. To do that, a large scale prototype must be installed and validated in the real environment, ideally an SKA site in South Africa or Australia. The technology which establishes a presence in such a location first will obviously be ahead of the other technology in terms of gathering the necessary data for the selection stage.
The University has already created and successfully tested the first small scale prototype, having 256 antenna elements and is now in the process of creating a medium sized prototype which will consist of 5,000 antenna elements, which it will be able to test in an environment that is close to actual one. This is being funded by the Project 'Field Trials for Ultrawideband Antenna' financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology through the National Research & Innovation Programme 2014.
The basic design process for some of the system electronics was kick-started through support from the TAKEOFF Seed Fund Award and the Malta Communications Authority. The back-end software will be designed by Ascent Software Ltd., a partner on the project.
The antenna market is mature, with several alternative designs available. However, none are able to support such a large bandwidth ratio (1:10) while satisfying all the requirements of the SKA. Relative to existing antenna design, using mass-production techniques enables the University of Malta to build the same array ten times cheaper. This is key to making the overall SKA project financially feasible.
The University of Malta team is being led by Prof. Charles Sammut of the Department of Physics. The team also includes Prof. Kristian Zarb Adami and Ms Eman O. Farhat of The Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy.