University of Oxford signs RFEL for initial signal processing study contract for the Square Kilometre Array radio astronomy project
RFEL, who specialises in high performance, electronic video and signal processing solutions, was selected because of the company's expertise in novel signal processing architectures and optimal VHDL coding that allows complex designs to "fit" into small FPGAs without compromising overall system performance. The SKA, which will be built over the next decade, will comprise of thousands of dish telescopes and hundreds of thousands of dipole antennas. Each of the dipole antennas will have two of these channelisers, to process the signals. It is therefore vital to keep the power requirements and costs of each processing card to a minimum.
The study involves the creation of a highly-configurable, fixed-point Matlab model, where channelisation parameters and beam forming strategies can be entered. Stimulus can then be presented to the model to allow the fidelity of performance to be monitored against immediate feedback of FPGA resource usage, and power dissipation for any given design configuration. RFEL is drawing on its years of work in this area of signal processing and its extensive Matlab and VHDL "module" library, to enable the SKA to achieve the maximum system performance matched to the FPGA cost and power dissipation limitations of such a large scientific instrument.
Alex Kuhrt, RFEL's CEO, announced, "We are delighted to have been awarded this contract. This is a highly prestigious, international project with around 100 organisations from 20 countries participating in the design and development. We will be able to draw on our previous work on solutions for radio telescopes, such as for the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy."
The antennae will be located in Australia and Africa to form a radio telescope that spans two continents and a total collecting area of one square kilometre. Rather than just clustered in the central core regions, the telescopes will be arranged in multiple spiral arm configurations, with the antennae extending to vast distances from the central cores, creating what is known as a long baseline interferometer array. It will have an unprecedented scope in observations, exceeding the image resolution quality of the Hubble Space Telescope by a factor of 50 times, whilst also having the ability to image huge areas of sky ten times faster than any existing facilities.
The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about the 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.
In such an array, physical distance separates the telescopes, and the distance between them is calculated precisely using the time difference between the arrival of radio signals at each receiver. Computers can then calculate how to combine these signals to synthesise something the equivalent size of a single dish measuring the width of the distance between the two scopes. In doing so, these interferometry techniques enable astronomers to emulate a telescope with a size equal to the maximum separation between the telescopes in the array, or if needed, just the distance between a subset of telescopes, or indeed, multiple subsets of the main array. This way, rather than build one gigantic dish, the capabilities of one huge dish are in some ways surpassed by the flexibility that this interferometry configuration brings.
The SKA project is an international effort to build the world's largest radio telescope, with a square kilometre (one million square metres) of collecting area. The scale of the SKA represents a huge leap forward in both engineering and research & development towards building and delivering a radio telescope, and will deliver a correspondingly transformational increase in science capability when operational. 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 to centralise the leadership of the project. Eleven countries are currently members of the SKA Organisation, and some further countries expressed their interest in joining the project in the near-term future.
RFEL Ltd is a UK-based innovative electronic systems designer, providing real-time high specification signal, image and video processing products, FPGA solutions and design services to defence, security, communications and instrumentation markets.
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