Taking space observation to the next level

By Russ Taylor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Calgary

SKA dishes back closeup 300dpiLast month, the greatest astronomical development since the invention of the telescope over 400 years ago took a concrete step forward. Members of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Organization voted to begin building phase one of what will one day be the largest ever radio telescope on multiple locations within Australia/New Zealand and South Africa. This project is about to go from "on paper" to on site.

Canada is a part of the SKA Organization. For those of us in the Canadian SKA Consortium, the development of a telescope that can collect petabits of information about the formation of the Universe and how it operates is eagerly awaited, and we do not want to sit idly by as the world gets to work on this enormous scientific endeavor. We are determined that Canada will play a significant role in the construction of the Square Kilometre Array, as well as in the processing of the enormous volumes of information that is expected to stream from it.

This next development stage is key, as it will determine how the entire system will work, and which technologies will be used. The Consortium aims to create a Canadian SKA Industry group to help deepen our involvement at this level. Among the areas where we hope Canada will have some influence are site infrastructure, telescope management, signal and data transport, and science data processing. The Global SKA Organization has already opted to use specific survey tools and imaging technologies developed, tested and implemented right here in Canada.

Science data processing is of particular interest to our partners in Calgary, including the University of Calgary and Cybera, who would like to see the SKA's North American Data and Science Centre located here. This Centre would be a key link in the (space) data chain; working with a team of international researchers to download and analyze the massive amount of data streaming in from the thousands of telescopes within the SKA. (The total data collected by SKA telescopes in just a single day would take nearly two million years to playback on an iPod).

This will require a dramatic re-think of how we process large data sets, and will challenge the brightest minds that Alberta's universities, research organizations and industry can produce. But Calgary does stand a favourable chance of winning the bid for North America's SKA Data and Science Centre, both because of our leading role in the project internationally and our long-standing commitment to the project (Dr. Robert Este of the University of Calgary is the SKA industry contact for Canada), but also because the United States will not be taking part in phase one of the SKA, which removes some of the city's competition.

This is Calgary's opportunity to step up on the international science stage. The Universe is waiting.