The world’s biggest telescope

14 Jun 2019 8min read

Last month I spent exploring the universe with the world’s biggest telescope. Seriously!

The International Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a science mega-project that doesn’t have much awareness in the public consciousness (yet!). Not like, say, the Large Hadron Collider which was instrumental in the discovery of the Higgs Boson, or the LIGO detector which allowed us to measure gravitational waves through the observation of characteristic ripples from the death spiral and collision of 2 black holes.

The history of the SKA began a generation ago, in September 1993, with a worldwide effort to develop the scientific goals and technical specifications for a next generation radio observatory. An international consortium of organisations from astronomers to funding bodies were brought together to form the SKA organisation, headquartered in a new building at Jodrell Bank in the UK, in the shadow of the iconic Lovell dish.

telescope universe
Juan de Dios Santander Vela, SKA HQ2 almost finished, Flickr, (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The array will complete its critical design review in December this year (2019) and then construction will begin, a generation after the concept was first put forward! This is engineering on a huge scale.

I attended a conference about the history of the SKA and was honoured to give a presentation at the request of Professor Schillizi of the SKA. A few years ago, with my previous employer BAE Systems, we built a relationship with SKA where BAE Systems had used its knowledge of lifecycle management of complex systems and system engineering to help guide the SKA project through some of its engineering challenges. BAE Systems had a lot of knowledge on how to design, build and support complex large-scale systems in hostile desert environments and took this opportunity to support the international efforts in defining the SKA.

Team Consulting was happy for me to go and so I went along with an ex-colleague, Terry Soame, from BAE Systems.

Terry Soame and Peter Matthewson

After many discussions and deliberations, the requirements for the SKA have been settled and it was decided that the instrument was designed to help answer the following key questions:

How do galaxies evolve? What is dark energy?

The acceleration in the expansion of the universe has been attributed to a mysterious dark energy. The SKA will investigate this expansion after the Big Bang by mapping the cosmic distribution of hydrogen.

Was Einstein right about gravity?

The SKA will investigate the nature of gravity and challenge the theory of general relativity.

What generates giant magnetic fields in space?

The SKA will create three-dimensional maps of cosmic magnets to understand how they stabilise galaxies, influence the formation of stars and planets, and regulate solar and stellar activity.

How were the first black holes and stars formed?

The SKA will look back to the Dark Ages, a time before the universe lit up, to discover how the earliest black holes and stars were formed.

Are we alone?

The SKA will be able to detect very weak extra-terrestrial signals and will search for complex molecules, the building blocks of life in space.

What technologies will be used to do it?

• The SKA will eventually use thousands of dishes and up to a million low-frequency antennae that will enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and survey the entire sky much faster than any system currently in existence

• Its unique configuration will give the SKA unrivalled scope in observations, largely exceeding the image resolution quality of the Hubble Space Telescope

• Sensitivity is such that it could detect an airport surveillance radar 10s of light years away

• It will have the processing capacity of 100 million PCs

• The aperture arrays will produce about 100x global internet traffic of data

• Installed in the desert, low frequency arrays in Australia, dishes and mid frequency arrays in South Africa

• Implementations that are highly scalable, low-power, low-cost, safe and secure

Any similarities with the world of medical devices?

I am fascinated by technology brokering and the cross fertilisation of ideas that happens when engineers and scientists get together; how a solution to a problem in one domain can be applied to another seemingly different problem. So, I was interested to see if there were any useful ideas or solutions in the SKA that could be applied to medical device development. Not surprisingly, I didn’t see much directly applicable front-end technology there! But I did notice a few points of comparison.

The system engineering approach has been embraced by SKA which has helped it to deal with a number of issues and constraints:

• The difficulties of planning the project with new technologies when both ‘gestation’ period and the in-service lifetime are 20-30 years

• The science case (effectively the user requirements) has many competing objectives that drive scale and cost

• Risk management is being used to drive the process

• Technology readiness being assessed and managed again to keep risks bounded

• Technology needs to work in a representative harsh environment, over a system engineering lifecycle

• The project planning, management and bounding of cost and having an honest conversation with funders about uncertainties to manage expectations

The SKA will bring together science, industry and different nations to collaborate and succeed together, just as the children of the 1960s who were inspired by the Apollo programme.

Many of these issues ring true of medical device development; the system may include devices, connection to a cloud infrastructure and allow for secure access to large sets of data by different stakeholders, there are often constraints that have to be applied, history to work with, and a time to commercial launch measured in years. In the medical device world, system engineering is being increasingly recognised as a useful approach for complex system lifecycle management.

Like many medical systems, there is both engineering and science involved. The scientists are usually involved first and there is a gradual transition into the detailed engineering of fieldable, supportable kit, where engineers play the leading hand. In the case of the SKA, the astronomer science community are the end users but are also providers of technology such as antenna hardware, digital receivers, correlation algorithms and science data processing. In a typical medical device programme, the efforts of applied scientists are needed to understand and risk manage technologies (new assays, power sources etc).

The cost of the SKA is about €1 billion and is of the same order as a new drug development. The pharmaceutical industry uses estimates from the Tufts Centre for the Study of Drug Development, the most recent one puts the cost of bringing a medicine from invention to pharmacy shelves at $2.7 billion. For SKA, this is one of the big challenges and constraints coordinating the national funding bodies of the member nations that also ensure work content is shared in proportion to contributions made – in reality a formidable challenge almost as difficult as the science?

One cannot help being impressed by the curiosity, dedication and persistence of the astronomers who have been pushing this for 25 years, and it hasn’t gone into construction yet! The research teams have been using the discipline of systems engineering to manage science requirements, technical requirements, cost constraints and solution. It will bring together science, industry and different nations to collaborate and succeed together, just as the children of the 1960s who were inspired by the Apollo programme. This will be an inspirational programme for girls and boys to study STEM subjects.

A story to tell your kids about….

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