Global project to develop next-generation radio astronomy tech set to boost SKA research at UP

Posted on December 13, 2022

University of Pretoria (UP) scientists involved in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project are poised for a major boost in their research efforts as a result of next-generation technologies developed by a new global radio astronomy initiative.

The RADIOBLOCKS project aims to enhance world-leading research infrastructures in radio astronomy and will commence on 1 March 2023. The project will take a holistic view of how radio telescopes arrays capture, process, synthesise and analyse cosmic signals, and develop components, technologies and software that are applicable to a wide range of instruments in order to enable the next major discoveries in radio astronomy.

The European Commission has granted the project €10 million to develop these “common building blocks” for technological solutions that will enable a broad range of new science.

For South Africa, the new technologies obtained through the project will be critical for including the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project – an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, for which South Africa is a co-hosting region – as part of a VLBI (very long baseline interferometry) network of telescopes.

“These technologies will enable us to probe the finest and faintest details of many different scientific phenomena, which are not reachable without the SKA,” says UP lecturer Dr Jack Radcliffe, RADIOBLOCKS lead at the University.

For UP, the project will support the efforts of researchers to make the incorporation of the SKA within the VLBI arrays a reality.

Radioblocks radio astronomy project logo

The RADIOBLOCKS project involves 33 major European research infrastructures for radio astronomy, as well as industry and academia partners from 13 countries.

“Through the SKA-VLBI simulations taskforce, the RADIOBLOCKS programme will help to produce end-to-end simulation packages that can inform and assist the development of new technologies, as well as investigate the exciting science possibilities for when the SKA becomes part of a VLBI array,” Dr Radcliffe says. “The technologies and collaborations formed through this programme will ensure that its impact is not limited to just Europe, but also to the development of radio astronomy across Africa.”

The RADIOBLOCKS project involves 33 major European research infrastructures for radio astronomy, as well as industry and academia partners from 10 European countries, Japan, the Republic of Korea and South Africa. The engagement with industry to co-develop advanced technologies will increase the partners’ technological levels and strengthen their market positions.

The four-year RADIOBLOCKS project is coordinated by the Joint Institute for Very Long Baseline Interferometry as a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (JIVE ERIC) and major European research infrastructures for radio astronomy. It will receive funding from the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme.

“The project brings together world-leading academic research and industry experts from across Europe and beyond to co-develop, then exploit new technologies to maximise the science capabilities of current and future radio facilities,” says Professor Rob Beswick, Head of Science Operations and User Support for e-MERLIN, the UK’s National Radio Astronomy Facility, Deputy Director of the UK SKA regional centre and RADIOBLOCKS lead at the University of Manchester.

The project aims to develop common needed blocks:

  • to develop new correlators, which can efficiently exploit powerful new commercially available accelerator hardware. This development will directly benefit the large radio arrays from metre to sub-millimetre wavelengths;
  • in cutting-edge front-end technologies, addressing the generation and real-time handling of wide-band and multi-band data, in particular for the creation of novel detectors and components;
  • for multi-pixel receivers, ranging from centimetre to sub-millimetre wavelengths, suitable for large single-dish facilities, with special relevance for future collaborations with pan-European and global research infrastructures (such as the SKA-VLBI); and
  • for data (post)processing, testing prototype workflows functionality and demonstrating usage of end-to-end simulation tools.

The project builds on the highly consolidated RadioNet consortium, which has successfully integrated a unique array of capabilities and contributed to the continued advances in radio astronomy. These advances are recognised as essential in answering key questions in astrophysics.

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