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2014-04 Idea log AUT Insight on SKA Print
April 2014

The following article appears on Idealog (one word) Issue #50 for March and April 2014.  The editor has given us the permission to reproduce the article here.  The article explains the New Zealand involvement in the biggest science project of the world- SKA Telescope.  It mentions "hardware company Compucon NZ" as a New Zealand SKA Design Team member.  We can read that the director of the New Zealand team Dr Andrew Ensor of AUT is telling us that there are plenty of business opportunities out of this gigantic project for New Zealand companies

Beyond calculation
 A Kiwi-led team will drive much of the computer design of the Square Kilometre Array, the ground-breaking international astronomy project electrifying the scientific world

Imagine being asked to solve the biggest big-data problem the world has ever known.

Relax. You won’t have to. That brief’s gone to Dr Andrew Ensor, a senior research lecturer in the School of Computer and Mathematical Sciences at AUT University. As Director of the New Zealand SKA Alliance, he’s leading some key parts of the design of a computing project with a phase one budget of €650 million.

SKA, the Square Kilometre Array, is the largest and most ambitious scientific endeavour in history, and one in which AUT is heavily involved. The project, a collaboration between 11 nations, will see thousands of dishes and millions of dipole radio receptors, with a collecting area of one square kilometre combine to create a giant telescope co-located in Australia and South Africa. Around one hundred times more sensitive than any present-day radio telescope, it will have an image-resolution quality 50 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Eventually SKA will enable scientists to look deep into the universe to answer fundamental questions about its origins, to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, further investigate Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and study dark matter and gravitational waves.

Although New Zealand wasn’t successful in its bid to host SKA’s radio telescope infrastructure, Dr Ensor believes we’ve hit the jackpot with our significant role in the design of what is effectively the brain of the project: the Correlator is a computer system that will combine the data received by all the SKA dishes.

“Without the Correlator, you don’t have a telescope,” says Ensor. “For ICT people, this is the glamour part, even if it all ends up in a dark server room. Right now SKA is the biggest ICT project in the world. We have to design a supercomputer that can process and correlate all the data received by the telescope array, and there’s a lot – around eight terabytes per second for the Survey Correlator being designed by New Zealand. That’s about the same amount of data traffic that goes through the internet each day worldwide, but it will all come into one computer.”

Over the next three years, AUT will lead an international team charged with designing key parts of this first phase, SKA1. It includes experts from the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, China, the UK and the US, as well as Massey University, the University of Auckland, hardware company Compucon NZ and Oamaru-based software company Open Parallel.

In total, more than 350 scientists and engineers, drawn from nearly 100 institutions, universities and industry organisations, will work on this critical design phase. But there’s a further degree of difficulty to the project. To escape radio frequency interference, two of the telescope arrays will be located deep in the Australian outback. Running them off mains power is logistically impossible, so Ensor and his team have to come up with another solution.

The SKA Survey correlator will also include a new type of high-performance computer board that can handle the data rates required, and multi-core processors to run multiple tasks in parallel on very low power. These developments will help drive innovation in the ICT industry over the next decade, he says.

In terms of IP generation, new computing technology and data processing, the spinoffs for New Zealand are huge, says Ensor. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has provided funding for the project, as has AUT.

“This project is a fantastic way to showcase New Zealand and a great opportunity for Kiwi hardware and software companies. Those involved in the design can then put their hands up for tender [to build the SKA Computer system]. There are probably a lot of companies out there that don’t realise how big this project is. We want to get them involved,” he says.

“New Zealand didn’t get the dishes, but this is where all the IP and technology is. From our perspective, we’ve won out because so many new technologies will need to be developed. The SKA project wants to be able to use this IP but it doesn’t necessarily want to own it, so companies that develop the IP can keep it and use it for other applications.”


"This project is a fantastic way to showcase New Zealand and a great opportunity for Kiwi hardware and software companies" 

Ensor also hopes the involvement in SKA will boost tertiary student numbers in areas such as science, technology, engineering and maths. “There’s a shortage of computer science graduates. For every one we turn out in New Zealand, there are three potential jobs and that demand will only grow. We want to enthuse school kids and help them realise they could become computer scientists on mega-projects such as this one.”