Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Update

By /par Kristine Spekkens (Canadian SKA Science Director), Michael Rupen (SKA Program Lead, NRC-HAA), Gregory Sivakoff (ACACS Chair), Gilles Joncas (ACURA Executive Director)
(Cassiopeia – Summer / été 2024)

The last six months have been extremely eventful for Canada and the SKA. On April 14, Canada became a member of the  SKA Observatory (SKAO), with full science, technology and governance privileges. This completes the accession process that began last year, with Budget 2023 providing $269.3M over 8 years plus ongoing funds to support Canadian SKA participation through the construction phase and into operations towards the end of this decade. Some scientific, technological, and SKA Regional Centre updates for Canada and the SKA are highlighted below.

Science Update

Canada’s 6% use-share will provide the community with significant access to SKA observing time and computing resources. Construction is phased into Array Assemblies (AAs), each one with increasing numbers of dishes for SKA-Mid and antennas for SKA-Low. Major anticipated science milestones include:

  • Science Verification data from scientifically competitive arrays (Array Assembly 2 = AA2) in late 2027;
  • Shared-risk Principal Investigator (PI) observations with the AA* staged-delivery facilities in late 2028; and
  • The start of large Key Science observing Programs (KSPs) in 2030.

The SKAO science user webpages include resources ranging from staged delivery plans, to key performance documents, to data challenges, to sensitivity calculators. New tools and functionality are being continually added as they are developed by the SKA Operations Team.

In Canada, the ACURA/CASCA Advisory Committee on the SKA (ACACS) has been formed to support Canadian SKA participation and offer guidance to ACURA, CASCA, and NRC. ACACS, which supersedes the pre-commitment ACURA Advisory Committee on the SKA (AACS), will ensure coherent messaging and provide feedback, promote the SKAO and coordinate related activities across universities, identify potential resources to support future elements of Canadian SKA participation, and regularly interface with the Canadian astronomical community. ACACS is chaired by Gregory Sivakoff (University of Alberta; sivakoff@ualberta.ca), and ACURA and CASCA will soon solicit a call for committee member volunteers. Canadian astronomers interested in ACACS activities are encouraged to reach out to the chair directly.

A major international SKAO General Science Meeting will be held from 16-22 June 2025, in Görlitz, Germany, the location of the new German Center for Astrophysics (Deutsches Zentrum für Astrophysik). The meeting will focus on planning Science Verification and Early Science observation planning, and revising  the (now decade-old) SKA Science Book. Draft chapter submissions will be solicited by SKAO in early Fall, from which the Görlitz meeting program will be planned. To facilitate strong Canadian engagement in this process, ACACS will organise a two-day virtual meeting on Canadian Scientific Participation and Leadership in the SKA in mid-October. Details will be circulated to the community as they become available.

The Canadian SKA Scientists program continues to be developed, with a first call for applications expected in Fall 2024. In the steady state, this new, permanent program will support a total of 8 –10 NRC-funded SKA Scientists spread across Canadian universities. With a 3–5 year fixed term, competitive stipends, and a substantial research/travel budget, Canadian SKA Scientists will carry out independent research in astrophysics with faculty mentorship at the universities where they hold the position, and will also make wide-ranging contributions to the SKA Program under the supervision and mentorship of NRC-HAA staff. The job ad to recruit the first Canadian SKA Scientists will be widely circulated to the Canadian astronomical community.

Technology Update

Left: the pedestal for the first SKA-Mid dish is lifted into position in South Africa. Right: the first SKA-Low station in Australia. Image credits: SKAO

Significant SKA construction progress has now been made on-site. In recent months, the first SKA-Mid dish in South Africa and the first SKA-Low antenna station in Australia have been installed. Both are important steps toward Array Assembly 0.5 (= AA0.5), a major technical construction milestone consisting of the first correlated 4-dish SKA-Mid array and 4-station SKA-Low array. AA0.5 on SKA-Low is anticipated in late 2024 while that for SKA-Mid is expected in early 2025, enabling the first comprehensive, on-site engineering tests of both telescopes.

Canada’s most significant technical contribution to SKA construction is the SKA-Mid Correlator/Beamformer (Mid.CBF). Significant recent progress towards meeting that goal has been made in recent months by NRC-HAA with industry partner MDA Space, including:

  • The Mid.CBF System Requirements Review (SRR), the first major review of Mid.CBF, will be held at MDA on July 2 – 4. The goal is to show that the final design meets all the scientific and non-functional (e.g., safety and environmental) SKA requirements, and is a critical “go/no-go” decision point on the road to deployment.
  • Leading up to this review, the AA0.5 Mid.CBF system is currently being tested at the SKA-Mid system integration facility in Richmond, BC. The goal is an end-to-end demonstration of a 4-antenna / 200 MHz correlator by late June.
  • Looking further ahead, the Pulsar Timing Beamformer FPGA firmware implementation (needed for AA1) is nearing completion and progressing onto hardware tests.  AA2+ designs for the Agilex FPGAs are in the prototyping phase to ensure the firmware designs will fit in the target hardware.
  • On the hardware side, testing is underway for two candidate 32-port 400 GbE network switches to route data within Mid.CBF.
  • Software design and prototyping is also underway for a hardware/firmware emulation environment, to allow testing software systems at scale without huge amounts of signal processing hardware.

Canada is also on track to deliver high-performance, cryogenic low-noise amplifiers (LNAs) for SKA1-Mid’s Band 2 receivers.  The current focus is on the LNAs for AA0.5 and AA1, with the first set tested and shown to meet all requirements.

Canadian SKA Regional Centre (can|SRC) Update

In March, the SKAO governing Council endorsed the formation of the ~5-year SRCNet Project. The initial focus is on the development and delivery of SRCNet v0.1, the first implementation of a collaborative, federated international network of SKA Regional Centres (SRCs) that will be essential for transforming SKA observations into scientific insights.  The goal of SRCNet v0.1 is to demonstrate the basic capabilities and operation of such a network in time to allow community access to the initial science verification data from AA2. In the long run SRCNet will form the SKA science archive, and also provide much of the processing power needed to turn raw data into the advanced data products needed for SKA science.

The Canadian SKA Regional Centre (can|SRC) will provide user data access, support, and archive services by building on the Canadian Network for Astronomical Research (CANFAR) science platform, which is maintained by the CADC using Digital Research Alliance of Canada (Alliance) hardware and CANARIE network services. can|SRC has been selected as one of the five key data centres around the world that will form SRCNet v0.1.   This milestone was achieved through a collaboration agreement between NRC and the Alliance, enabling the necessary computing and storage capacity for can|SRC. This new SRCNet v0.1 capacity is expected to be operational on CANFAR by late fall 2024.

This spring, CANFAR was chosen as the prototype Science Platform for SRCNet v0.1. Additionally, a number of SRC nodes have agreed to contribute significant effort towards integrating the Rucio storage system with CANFAR. Rucio, a data distribution management tool used by CERN, will be implemented for SRCNet v0.1. The goal is to have v0.1 ready for internal data transfers and computing tests by January 2025, with the further aim of supporting scientific test users in v0.3, scheduled for release in Spring 2026.

NRC-HAA is currently hiring a number of developers, as well as at least one radio astronomer to support can|SRC development.  Several additional community-facing astronomy positions will be advertised shortly, aimed at supporting effective access to SKA data by scientists across Canada.  These astronomers will provide information on (and take suggestions for) SKA and can|SRC capabilities and opportunities, and  supervise/mentor the Canadian SKA Scientists discussed above in partnership with university faculty. Job ads for these positions will be widely circulated within the Canadian astronomical community.

For more information, updates, and opportunities to get involved:

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