Scientists converge in Penticton for out of this world project

Engineers and scientists from 20 countries gathered in Penticton, members of the Square Kilometre Array radio-telescope project.

Engineers and scientists from the 20 countries participating in the project to build the next generation of radio telescopes

Engineers and scientists from the 20 countries participating in the project to build the next generation of radio telescopes

No matter how much communications technology you have at your disposal, it can’t always replace face-to-face meetings.

That’s one of the reasons behind a gathering of engineers and scientists from 20 countries that took place in Penticton this week, all members of the global effort to design and build the Square Kilometre Array radio-telescope project.

“One of the big challenges with a global project is communications. No matter how much you put out in terms of paper, emails, websites and that, nothing beats face to face meetings,” said the project’s director general, Dr. Philip Diamond. He notes that beside the formal lectures and groups working on particular subjects, the informal meetings play a big role.

“The coffee breaks, the lunch breaks, the evenings sitting in the bar, these are all essential tools for efficient communications,” said Diamond.

The SKA project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, to be located in Australia and Africa. The scale of the SKA represents a huge leap forward in both engineering and research & development. The SKA will revolutionize our understanding of the Universe and the laws of fundamental physics. When finished SKA will be more sensitive that any other radio-telescope, and produce a larger data flow from its receptors than the total global internet traffic.

The conference in Penticton this week was the third annual “all hands” meeting of the engineering team for the project. Previous meetings were held in Freemantle, Australia and Manchester, England, where the project has its headquarters.

“This is the engineering brains trust from around the planet that is designing the SKA. We have 11 design consortia designing different parts of the telescope, the dishes, the digital systems, the software, etc.,” said Diamond.

One of those teams is working out of the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, located at White Lake near Penticton. Canada is leading the consortium that is designing the digital signal processing equipment, working with engineers and scientists from other institutes around the world.

“That builds on a huge strength that you have hear at DRAO, which is very skilled digital electronics engineers. Another area where Canada is very interested is the dish,” said Diamond, noting that 200 15-metre dish antennas will be built in the first phase, in the South African desert, noting that one of the prototype dishes was being designed at DRAO.

“We have had the opportunity to showcase the engineering, what we have been doing out at DRAO on the new dish design and on phased array feeds,” said Dr. Sean Dougherty, the observatory director.

“We have also been able to showcase Penticton and I think all the delegates have really appreciated being here. I think it has been a success.”

Mayor Andrew Jakubeit welcomed the group to Penticton during a reception at Poplar Grove Winery Monday. He said DRAO was one of the area’s lesser known treasures.

“I think people know that we have an observatory, but they really don’t know what goes on there and how cutting edge the technology they have there is,” said Jakubeit. “The staff there has participated in creating other elements of technology that has been used in other observatories around the world.”

Diamond said this kind of global cooperation is essential to build the next generation of radio telescopes. Over the last 50 years, he explained, the astrophysical community has built communication networks and collaboration because a single observatory finds it difficult to have all the skills available for all of the equipment. That sharing of skills and information has led to projects like the SKA telescope.

“It’s a model, really, for how to collaborate in these big science projects,” said Diamond, adding that it is not without challenges like communication, miscommunication and getting everyone moving in the same direction.

“It’s a lot of work by a lot of people, but the will is there,” he said.


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