Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Update

SKA logoBy/par Bryan Gaensler, Canadian SKA Science Director
(Cassiopeia – Spring/printemps 2017)

For more information on the SKA, subscribe to the Canadian SKA email list, and visit the Canadian SKA WWW site.

“Canadian Radio Astronomy: Surveying the Present and Shaping the Future”

A meeting will be held over September 13-14, 2017, in Montréal to assess the present and future landscape of Canadian radio astronomy, defined broadly to span the frequency range from ~50 MHz to ~100 GHz, utilising instruments such as CHIME, the JVLA, ALMA, the various SKA pathfinders and precursors, and more. The meeting will be an opportunity for the entire Canadian astronomy community (including students and postdocs) to present and discuss their frontline research with current radio facilities, the status of planned facilities, and the community’s scientific priorities for the next generation of observatories such as the ngVLA and SKA. There will be a strategy session on the afternoon of the second day, where we will have an initial discussion on possible radio contributions to the next Long Range Plan. To register, please fill out this form by March 31st, 2017.

Canadian SKA Pre-Construction Activities

NRC Herzberg has continued its work on pre-construction for the SKA1-Mid correlator/beamformer (CBF), the single pixel feed digitisers, and the band 2 and band 5 low noise amplifiers, with the focus remaining on completing Critical Design Reviews by December 2017.

The Mid.CBF and Low.CBF teams initiated discussions to see if there was a possibility of converging the NRC and CSIRO/ASTRON correlator/beamformer designs and of sharing development pieces. The functional requirements for SKA1-Mid and SKA1-Low are sufficiently different that full convergence is not possible, but the teams have agreed to share design pieces.

The single pixel feed digitisers will undergo a Detailed Design Review (DDR) within the Dish Consortium over January 30-31, 2017 prior to building pre-production units for on-site testing later this year.

The band 2 low-noise amplifier (LNA) specifications have been ratified by the Dish Consortium, and the band 2 feed design from EMSS South Africa passed its DDR in Nov 2016. NRC is proceeding to supply LNAs for the pre-production units for on-site testing. The band 5 change request to split the 3:1 band into two 1.85:1 bands 5A and 5B was approved, and prototype LNAs are being prepared by NRC for consideration in a competitive design of these split bands.

The construction and operating cost review, mandated from the SKA Board, is being led by SKAO with nine ‘streams’ of examination:

  • Reuse of precursor or pathfinder designs
  • Alternative antennas
  • Reduced operating model
  • Critical review of consortia cost estimates
  • Review of identified cost reduction options
  • Over-specified requirements
  • Over design
  • Explore SDP savings
  • Procurement model

The consortia are supporting this effort, and went through full day cost reviews discussions in February 2017, leading to recommendations to the SKA Board meeting in March 2017.

Canadian SKA Science Activities

The University of Toronto and the University of Cape Town are jointly hosting a major science conference, “Fundamental Physics with the Square Kilometre Array”, to be held in Mauritius over May 1-5, 2017. The purpose of this meeting is to engage the theoretical physics (as opposed to astrophysics) community in the science case and design considerations for the full array (further details).

The SKA project maintains 11 international science working groups and another 2 focus groups. Membership of science working groups and focus groups is open to all qualified astronomers. If you are interested in joining one of these groups, please contact Bryan Gaensler (bgaensler@dunlap.utoronto.ca).

The 2016 SKA Engineering meeting was held in Stellenbosch in October 2016. Twelve Canadians attended, representing NRC, CADC, and MDA. The 2016 SKA Science meeting was held in Goa in November 2016. Six Canadians attended, representing Toronto, NRC, McGill ,and Calgary. The 2017 SKA Engineering meeting will be held in Rotterdam in June 2017.

CFI Proposal on Radio Astronomy Data Services

A $9.4M funding proposal has now been submitted to the 2017 round of the CFI Innovation Fund program, with the goal of developing the tools and infrastructure needed to support a Canadian SKA Data Centre. The proposal is entitled “Unlocking the Radio Sky with Next-Generation Survey Astronomy”, and is a partnership between U. Toronto (lead), U. Alberta, UBC, U. Manitoba, Queen’s U., McGill U., CADC and NRAO, along with selected other international collaborators. If successful, the proposal will fund 14 staff and $3.6M of equipment over five years, through which the proposing team will derive and archive advanced data products for major new surveys with the VLA, CHIME and ASKAP. Results are expected in around June 2017.

Murchison Widefield Array

The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) is one of three designated SKA precursors. Construction is now well advanced for MWA phase 2, which will improve the sensitivity of the array by an order of magnitude. The legal process to add the University of Toronto as a partner to MWA phase 1 is now complete, providing Canada with one seat on the MWA Board as part of a North American consortium. Bryan Gaensler has taken up this seat and is participating in Board meetings. The next step is to establish a new legal framework for MWA phase 2, in which Canada will participate in its own right rather than in partnership with the USA. The process of developing the relevant documentation has commenced.

ACURA Advisory Council on the SKA

The Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA) coordinates activities and discussion on the SKA through the ACURA Advisory Council on the SKA (AACS); see skatelescope.ca/canada-and-the-ska/committees-working-groups/ for a listing of AACS membership. AACS meets several times per year, with its next meeting in June, 2017. For further information or to propose AACS agenda items, please contact the AACS Chair, Bryan Gaensler (bgaensler@dunlap.utoronto.ca).

SKA Regional Centres

In 2016, the SKA Board endorsed the concept of SKA Regional Centres (SRCs) as its preferred model for meeting and managing the challenges posed by the extremely high data rates, data volumes and data analysis requirements of SKA Phase 1. As such, the essential functions of a network of SRCs are to:

  • provide access to SKA data products, subject to SKA data access policies;
  • provide the computational resources for processing, including science analysis and data visualisation;
  • provide a common platform for the continued development and certification of software and data analysis tools;
  • provide a long-term science archive for SKA data products; and
  • provide local user support to their communities.

The SKA Office has now established an SKA Regional Centre Coordination Group (SRCCG), with representation from member countries/regions interested in hosting an SRC. The responsibilities of the SRCCG include defining a minimum set of requirements for individual SRCs, developing an accreditation process for the SRCs, developing a process to ensure that software tools are interoperable across the SRC network, and investigating models for the future governance of the collaborative network of SRCs. The SRCCG began monthly meetings in September 2016; Séverin Gaudet (NRC) has been appointed as the Canadian representative.
To provide input to the SRCCG and to shape a vision for an SRC in Canada, the AACS has formed a Canadian SKA Regional Centre Advisory Committee (CSRCAC), chaired by Erik Rosolowsky (U. Alberta). CSRCAC has now established its terms of reference, and held its first meeting in February 2017. A range of initial issues have been discussed, including consultation with the local astronomical community, the need to engage with other Canadian stakeholders (CANARIE, Compute Canada, CADC, CFI), and the potential for collaboration with other countries/regions.

International SKA Lanscape

The SKA Board (for which Greg Fahlman and Bryan Gaensler are the two Canadian directors) met most recently in July 2016 and November 2016; both meetings were held at SKA HQ at Jodrell Bank, UK). A meeting of the SKA Members (at which Greg Fahlman represented NRC) took place via videoconference in December 2016. The SKA Board’s Executive Committee (of which Bryan Gaensler is a member) meets monthly.

Notable outcomes from the last two SKA Board meetings have included:

  • A decision to undertake a review of the existing SKA design and to explore and capitalise on a range of cost-saving measures, in order to ensure the delivery of SKA1 against the defined cost cap of €674M (2016 Euros). This includes drawing on cost reduction options already identified and further exploiting potential cost-saving and risk-reduction technology developments and solutions provided by SKA precursor and pathfinder facilities. This work is being performed under the guidance of a Cost Update Subcommittee (CUS) of the Board, comprising all SKA Board Science Directors. The CUS aims to preserve the transformational science capabilities of SKA1, while minimising impact on the project schedule and allowing expansion of the telescopes as additional funding becomes available. The SKA Office will present preliminary recommendations on a cost update to the March 2017 Board meeting.
  • Extensive ongoing discussion of a proposed budget and business plan for the SKA Organisation (SKAO) through 2019 and into the transition into an intergovernmental treaty organisation (IGO).
  • Consideration of a staged construction plan for SKA1.
  • Approval of the top-level principles governing SKA operations, including recognition of the advantages of appointing CSIRO and SKA South Africa as preferred bidders for the operation of the two telescope sites in Australia and South Africa, respectively.
  • Receipt of a comprehensive review from the SKA Management Review Panel, and initiation of activity to implement the resulting recommendations.
  • Consideration of an SKA Observatory Development Program, aimed at pursuing advanced instrumentation for future SKA upgrades.
  • Discussion of the formation of a new international Phased Array Feed technology consortium.
  • Ongoing overviews of the SKA Headquarters and Site Hosting agreements, and of the design and construction of the SKA Headquarters.
  • Ongoing discussion of costing, scheduling, construction plans, engineering reports, operations plans, hosting agreements, and transition planning from a company limited by guarantee into an intergovernmental organisation (IGO).

The SKA Board meetings for 2017 will be in March, July and November.

Negotiations to form an IGO to replace the current SKA Organisation are ongoing. Negotiation meetings have taken place in Rome in October 2015, January 2016, April 2016, September 2016 and February 2017. Canada has not participated in these negotiations, but Gilles Joncas (ACURA) and Greg Fahlman / Sean Dougherty (NRC) have attended these meetings as observers. If the Canadian government decides not to participate in the IGO, an alternative option for Canadian astronomy is associate membership in the SKA IGO. Note that at present associate membership is a poorly understood concept, envisioned as a matter of negotiation between the IGO Council and the petitioning State.

For further information on international SKA activities, see the latest SKA Newsletter and the bi-monthly SKA Organisation Bulletin.

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