From SKA: “Canadian-led Central Signal Processor consortium successfully concludes SKA design work”


From SKA

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Members of the Central Signal Processor consortium at SKA Global Headquarters during the Critical Design Review in September 2018 (Credit: SKA Organisation)

20 February 2019

The international Central Signal Processor (CSP) consortium has concluded its design work on the SKA, marking the end of five years’ work comprised of 11 signatory members from 8 countries with more than 10 additional participating organisations.

The consortium, led by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC)*, has designed the elements that will together form the “processing heart” of the SKA. The CSP is the first stage of processing for the masses of digitised astronomical signals collected by the telescope’s receivers. It’s where the correlation and beamforming takes place to make sense of the jumble of signals, before the data is sent onwards to the Science Data Processor. At that stage, the data is ready to be turned into detailed astronomical images of the sky.

The CSP includes the Pulsar Search and Timing sub-elements, which enable astronomers to detect and characterise pulsars and fast transients. This will facilitate the most comprehensive and ambitious survey yet to detect all pulsars in our own galaxy as well as the first extragalactic pulsars. The Pulsar Search sub-element is based on a hybrid architecture of Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) and Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) computing boards. The design team was led by the University of Manchester (UK), University of Oxford (UK) and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (Germany) supported by input from INAF (Italy), New Zealand Alliance, STFC ATC Edinburgh (UK), and ASTRON (the Netherlands). The Pulsar Timing sub-element is based on GPUs. The design team consisted of participants from Swinburne University of Technology (Australia) and the New Zealand Alliance.

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Low CBF liquid-cooled Perentie Gemini Processing Board (left), Mid CBF Air-cooled TALON-DX Processing Board (right).

As part of their work, the consortium designed the FPGA computing boards that will perform correlation and beamforming (CBF) on the signals from the SKA. The CBF for the SKA-mid telescope -to be located in South Africa- is based on Intel FPGA technology and was led by the NRC with support from MDA, a Maxar Technologies company, AUT University (New Zealand), and INAF. The CBF for the SKA-low telescope -to be located in Australia- is based on Xilinx technology, was led by CSIRO with support from ASTRON and AUT University. Hundreds of these boards are required to meet the demanding processing requirements.

The Local Monitoring and Control sub-element was led by the NRC with contributions from MDA, INAF, and NCRA (India).

The consortium was given a full pass by the review panel during the CSP Critical Design Review (CDR) in September, the first SKA engineering consortium to receive this result. With very few actions required following the review, the consortium has now concluded its work.

“This is an extremely complex system – it has to process as many bits every 15 seconds as all the bits that are flowing through the global internet today,” said Consortium Lead Luc Simard of the NRC. “That’s a huge processing challenge at a site with limited electrical power and cooling power, and we have to fit a lot of hardware in a tight, restricted environment. To meet this challenge we needed a team of the highest quality – we have the best of the best and working with them has been a real honour. I’m really thankful for all their work.”

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

Now that its work is complete the 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.

“What made the design challenge so difficult are the exacting requirements for a telescope to deliver SKA telescope transformational science,” said Philip Gibbs, SKA Organisation Project Manager for CSP. “The system has to meet observing requirements that may include imaging, as well as VLBI, and pulsar search and timing, all at the same time. As well as the power and space issues on site, we’ve naturally also been constrained by the cost involved in providing a solution.”

“To reach this point is a testament to the tremendous effort of all the institutions involved in designing CSP – my heartfelt thanks go to them. We look forward to continued collaboration as we progress down the road towards construction of the SKA.”

*The CSP Consortium Project Management Office was led by a collaboration between the NRC and MDA, a contracted industry partner. Active consortium members (signatories) at the conclusion of the work included: Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON), Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) (Australia), Swinburne University of Technology (Australia), Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (Germany), National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) (Italy), New Zealand Alliance (AUT University, Massey University, University of Auckland, Compucon New Zealand and Open Parallel Ltd.), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) (UK), University of Manchester (UK), and University of Oxford (UK).

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About SKA

The Square Kilometre Arraywill be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10 000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes. The SKA will be built in Southern Africa and in Australia. Thousands of receptors will extend to distances of 3 000 km from the central regions. The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth. Construction of phase one of the SKA is scheduled to start in 2016. The SKA Organisation, with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, UK, was established in December 2011 as a not-for-profit company in order to formalise relationships between the international partners and centralise the leadership of the project.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, led by SKA Organisation. The SKA will conduct transformational science to improve our 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.

Already supported by 10 member countries – Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom – SKA Organisation has brought together some of the world’s finest scientists, engineers and policy makers and more than 100 companies and research institutions across 20 countries in the design and development of the telescope. Construction of the SKA is set to start in 2018, with early science observations in 2020.