South Africa-Led International Consortium Completes Planning Work For SKA Telescope

Artist’s impression of the Square Kilometre Array project in South Africa. Source: SKAO

The international engineering consortium tasked with planning the Assembly, Integration and Verification (AIV) of the SKA Radio Telescope has formally completed its work, taking another crucial step towards the construction of the world’s largest radio telescope.

The AIV Consortium, formed in 2013, was led by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), and was responsible for delivering the AIV process for SKA’s mid-frequency array (SKA-MID) in South Africa as well as the low-frequency array (SKA-LOW) in Australia. The experience gained and lessons learnt by the South African engineers from designing the AIV process for MeerKAT positioned SARAO as the natural lead for the AIV consortium. SARAO engineers, as well as engineers from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON), constituted the SKA AIV consortium.

“The AIV programme is critical to ensure that telescope elements that have been designed and built by a dispersed global community are tested, assembled and verified in a rational and thorough way, thereby ensuring that the entire telescope system will work as designed, in line with budget and on schedule,” said Professor Justin Jonas, Chief Technologist at SARAO.

Experience with other radio telescopes has demonstrated that the roll-out activities are often under-estimated, resulting in delays in deployment, due to re-engineering and retro-fitting of components, which in turn increases the total cost of the system. Many issues that are discovered during “downstream” integration and verification are the result of “upstream” neglect. The sheer scale and complexity of the SKA therefore made it essential that AIV planning was done at an early stage, in parallel with the work of the element-design consortia.

“SKA-MID will consist of nearly 200 dishes in South Africa and 130,000 antennas in Western Australia, so we don’t want to assemble and integrate and then discover that something crucial is missing, or doesn’t work as we expected it to,” said Richard Lord, AIV Consortium Lead at SARAO. “We’ve learned valuable lessons from MeerKAT about how challenging AIV can be if issues are identified too late during deployment. Planning for the AIV now gives us the best possible preparation for accurate procurement and construction for the SKA.”

“The process of planning how to verify a radio telescope is not just about writing test procedures.  It is a journey of discovery, one that explores the most efficient way to roll out a complex system, so that risks are mitigated as early as possible. It is a journey that touches all aspects of the design.  And most of all, it is a journey of communication, of creating a common goal and a common vision, so that everybody involved feels invested in the process, and can be equally proud when things come together”, Richard added.

The work completed by the AIV Consortium will be included in the overall System Critical Design Review (CDR) for the SKA, scheduled for the later part of this year, which will ensure that all the different design elements of the SKA align with each other.

“This small consortium has moved mountains in terms of the amount of preparation done for both SKA telescopes, and I want to sincerely thank them for their efforts,” said Peter Hekman, Engineering Project Manager responsible for AIV at the SKA headquarters. “After System CDR, their work will really begin to pay dividends, as we put these plans into action with the construction of the SKA.”

SARAO Managing Director, Dr Rob Adam, also thanked and commended the SKA AIV Consortium.

“I want to congratulate Richard Lord, and the AIV consortium, for their exemplary work, on what is an extremely challenging aspect of the SKA design work, and I am very proud of the contribution of the SARAO system engineers”, said Adam.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, led by the SKA Organisation based at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester, United Kingdom. The SKA will conduct transformational science to improve human understanding of the universe and the laws of fundamental physics, monitoring the sky in unprecedented detail, and mapping it hundreds of times faster than any current facility.

The SKA is not a single telescope, but a collection of telescopes – called an array – to be spread over long distances. The SKA will be constructed in Australia and South Africa, with a later expansion in both countries and then into other African countries.

Already supported by 13 national members – Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom – the SKA Organisation has brought together some of the world’s finest scientists, engineers and policy makers and more than 100 companies and research institutions in the design and development of the telescope.

The AIV consortium was formed in late 2013 as one of 12 international engineering consortia tasked with designing the SKA, a global effort representing hundreds of organisations and 500 engineers in 20 countries. Nine consortia focused on core elements, while three developed advanced instrumentation for the telescope. The nine consortia are now going through their critical design reviews, where an expert panel examines each design proposal against the SKA’s stringent requirements.

Now that its work is complete, the AIV consortium formally disbands, although the SKA Organisation will work closely with participating countries to prepare for the overall System CDR and the development of the SKA construction proposal.


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