UK to build brain of SKAO telescopes
11 Apr 2022



More than £15 million has been awarded to UK institutions which are delivering the crucial software ‘brain’ of the world’s largest radio telescope.

SKAO low antennas at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Australia.

​​SKAO low antennas at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Australia. ​

Credit: STFC RAL Space/ Chris Pearson

The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) is set to explore the evolution of the early universe and delve into the role of some the earliest processes in fashioning galaxies like our own Milky Way, among many other science goals.

From its headquarters in the UK, SKAO will oversee the delivery and operations of two cutting-edge, complementary radio arrays with 197 radio telescope dishes located in South Africa and more than 130,000 low-frequency antennas in Western Australia.

​Underpinning these incredible instruments is the thinking power of its software system, telling the telescopes where to look and when, diagnosing any issues and translating the telescope signals into useable data from which new astronomical discoveries can be made.

The UK has already played a vital role in the software for the telescopes during the design phase, and is now set to continue leading this area as the telescopes are constructed.

Science Minister George Freeman said: “It is no surprise that the UK's outstanding scientists are playing such a vital role in shaping the future of this cutting-edge global observatory, backed by £15 million government funding.

“As well as providing the foundation for new galaxy-level discoveries, this award will help to guarantee future contracts for UK industry, secure skilled jobs and develop a highly-transferrable technology in the UK – channelling more money back into the UK economy.

“This reflects the incredible skill of our science community, who are working hand-in-hand with industry to ensure the UK continues to grow as a global science superpower."

​RAL Space and the SKAO

RAL Space software developers and astronomers are part of a team with Cambridge University and University of Oxford leading the development of the science data processor – the analysis software, that is required to process the extreme rates of raw data from the SKAO into science outputs for the worldwide astronomical community. The antenna arrays in the SKAO will produce more than 100 times the current global internet traffic. The science data processor team are developing the software to compress, process and output around 10 Petabytes  - the equivalent to 10 million Gigabytes  - of data every hour.

The teams ensure the processor is robust, resilient, easy-to-use and interfaces seamlessly with the other software and hardware components of the SKA.

Dr Chris Pearson, Astronomy Group leader at RAL Space said: “It is a fantastic opportunity for our team at RAL Space to be one of the pieces in the gigantic jigsaw that forms the largest scientific facility in the history of humankind"

Building the next generation of telescopes

SKAO recently received the go-ahead to start its construction phase, which is expected to be completed by the end of the decade, with the telescopes anticipated to operate for over 50 years.

As one of the largest scientific endeavours in history, the SKAO brings together more than 500 engineers and 1,000 scientists in more than 20 countries. 

The telescopes will be able to survey the sky much faster than existing radio telescopes, and so will require powerful computing to handle the expected data rate of 8 terabits of data per second and to support the regional  processing centres managing more than 700 petabytes a year.  At these challenging scales, high performance computing and software design are a cornerstone of the project.

Specialised cutting-edge software is being designed to control and monitor the telescope operations, and to allow detailed calibration and processing of the huge amounts scientific data.

The software central nervous system of SKAO

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has awarded more than £15 million to UK institutions to deliver the UK's national contribution to software development during the construction project and includes:

  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Manchester
  • University of Oxford
  • STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), Harwell Campus
  • STFC's Daresbury Laboratory, Liverpool City Region
  • STFC's Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC), Edinburgh

The SKAO headquarters is based at Jodrell Bank, near Manchester and its expansion was co-funded by the UK Government's Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), through STFC.

The UK government, through STFC, is the largest contributor to the SKAO and currently has a commitment to support 15% of the total cost of construction and initial operations from 2021 to 2030.

Professor Mark Thomson, Executive Chair of STFC and member of the SKAO Council, said: “The UK continues to play a leading role in the SKAO and the development of its telescopes.

“For any large scientific endeavour, the linchpin of its success lies in the infrastructure. Without the power to process and organise the vast amounts of information these telescopes will gather, we could not make the important discoveries.

 “With the skills and expertise of our researchers and colleagues in industry, the UK will deliver the computing brain and nervous system of the telescopes to enable the observations and unlock the science."

Read the full press release from the Science and Technology Facilities Council. ​