Interview: Dr Brian Boyle On SKA, Part Two

In part two of our interview, Dr Brian Boyle expands on the particular engineering challenges of the SKA project, and what it could mean for scientific research. As well as little green men that he's not meant to talk about.

If you've not read the first part of our interview with the director of the Australian SKA project Dr Brian Boyle, it's right here.

Giz Au: You mentioned earlier one of the benefits of the site being lack of interference from other radio sources; how does that effect telecommunications into the site itself?

Dr Brian Boyle: All of our telecoms come in via fibre. We have a dedicated optic fibre link into the site; it actually runs all the way from the Murchison radio astronomy observatory, through down to Geraldton and on down to Perth. Perth is where the supercomputer for ASKAP is housed.

But one of the biggest challenges we have is to ensure that we don't self-pollute ourselves with things like communication signals. Although the supercomputer for processing the images is located 700km away in Perth, we still have lots of onboard electronics -- on the antennas, the cameras and electronics to do pre-processing of all the signals. So we have to go to quite extraordinary lengths in order to design and construct buildings that are very effectively shielded from leaking out radio interference.

Giz Au: Western Australia's a very heavy mining area. Is there any potential risk or conflict with the mining industry?

Dr Brian Boyle: We're nicely away from things. We deliberately chose an area of very low prospectivity; there are mines (or potential mines) located more than 70km away from the observatory, but there's plenty of opportunity for the observatory and mining to co-exist.

Trying to place a telescope is a bit like the Goldilocks principle; you have to be a certain distance away from people to remove radio interference, but you can't be absolutely in the middle of inhospitable desert, because then the cost of rolling out infrastructure becomes prohibitive.

The great thing about Australia is that the population density falls away so rapidly from the coast, and you end up with a very low population but a very large area for you and other stakeholders; not only mining but also pastoral activities, and they can all work together.

Giz Au: So what are the broad research prospects for the SKA project, and even just ASKAP itself?

Dr Brian Boyle: For the SKA, there's a couple of headline key science goals. The SKA will have the light collecting power -- even though it's radio light -- to image back the first stars forming in the universe.

That's a time only a few hundred thousand years after the big bang. As you might be aware, as you look out via a telescope you're also looking back in time, simply because of the time that light takes to travel from objects. So when you look out at the universe you're always looking at things as they were a certain time ago. In the case of the SKA, that's 13 billion years; within a few hundred thousand years of the big bang, when we believe the first stars collapsed and consequently affected the entire evolution of the universe. The SKA will also be able to conduct the most detailed census of galaxies in the universe ever created, and from that, from looking at those highly precise cosmological maps, be able to map the fabric of the universe, and be able to identify what the nature of these peculiar components that make up the universe -- dark matter and dark energy -- actually are.

With radio waves we can also study magnetic fields in the universe. Although magnetism is a fundamental force, almost nobody knows about the influence it's had on the creation and fundamental evolution of the universe. The SKA will be able to to probe for primordial cosmic magnetic fields and how it subsequently influenced how the universe has come to be. The SKA will also be able to test the theories of Einstein and Hawkings to their ultimate limits by testing pulsars and quasars and looking in their intense gravitational fields for effects that have been presented at the limits of their theorems.

Of course, the one thing I'm frequently told not to mention but nevertheless is always there is that telescopes like the SKA can, if you like, empower the other surveys that are being done to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. The SKA will enhance the search volume for extra-terrestrial intelligence by a factor of millions over what we've already got. If intelligent life is out there and has been evolving similarly to way we have done, we'd be able to detect, for example, airport radars within several tens of light years of earth.

Giz Au: That's still going to be a fair distance to travel to land at their airports, though?

Dr Brian Boyle: (laughs) Yes, it would be for us. But they'd be broadcasting radar all the time, and we'd pick up that leakage. The chances of picking up any signals from extra terrestrial intelligence of course are incredibly remote, but the impact would be infinitely high if found, so you've got to look.

The coolest thing about this project for me is the interface between the science that we need to do with the telescope, which is transformational, and the engineering which we need to invent in order to make that science happen. It's the leading edge of technology and the involvement of multiple ICT industries who are really interested in helping us build a telescope whose supercomputer is 100 times faster than anything on the planet today. It involves data transmission and data storage a couple of orders of magnitude greater than anything today. Yet, people are very keen to do it, because that's the direction in which the world is going; the next thing is to move up to the exaflop scale, and the SKA is a wonderful driver for those kinds of technologies.

I'm very mindful of the fact that WiFi actually originated from somebody looking for radio waves from exploding black holes; John O'Sullivan didn't discover any, but he invented the chip which is now the heart of WiFi technology in two billion units around the world. It's those sorts of things.

Is there another WiFi in the SKA? You bet there is.

Images: ANZSKA