Canada was one of six founding members of the initial SKA consortium in 2000 and has maintained substantial involvement and engagement in the SKA project to date. SKA has consistently been ranked a top priority by the Canadian astronomical community in their decadal planning, including the most recent Canadian Astronomy Long Range Plan (LRP). A cooperation agreement with the NRC allowed Canadian participation in the SKAO to continue until March 2023, while full membership was under consideration. In January 2023, the Canadian government announced its intention to become a full member of the SKAO.
Brief history of Canada’s involvement with the SKAO
Canada was one of the six countries that formed the initial SKA consortium in 2000, and has remained highly engaged through the SKA concept design and preparatory phase and now into construction.
Alongside Canadian scientific efforts, the NRC’s Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre has been working for more than ten years to develop key technologies for the SKA telescopes, with a focus on innovations that will have a high impact on scientific utility and potential use for the greater good of the Canadian economy.
These key technologies include:
- Correlator/beamformer digital signal processing
- Composite dish reflectors
- Cryogenic low-noise amplifiers
- High-speed direct-conversion digitizers
- Phased array feeds
Supporting the SKAO
In November 2021, the NRC signed a two-year cooperation agreement with the SKA Observatory to enable Canadian science and technology contributions to continue while membership was given full consideration by the federal government. Canada appointed two observers to the intergovernmental organisation council. In January 2023, the Canadian government announced its intention to become a full member of the SKAO. The steps necessary to complete the membership process are anticipated to take place in the coming months.
Science Interest for Canada
Canadian astronomers are playing leading roles in designing the marquee SKA science programmes, including tests of gravity, low-frequency cosmology, cosmic magnetism, dark energy, and detecting transient systems. They have multi-wavelength expertise in galaxy evolution, multi-messenger astronomy, and planetary system formation. Canadian astronomers participate in 12 of the 14 SKA science working groups and focus groups and serve on the SKA Observatory’s Science and Engineering Advisory Committee (SEAC).
Building the SKAO
Under the current cooperation agreement, Canada is building the correlator/beamformer which will serve as the “brain” in the initial deployment of SKA’s mid-frequency telescope array (Array Assembly 0.5).
Canada continues to work in collaboration with SKAO partners on other elements of the so-called “signal chain” namely high-speed digitizers and low-noise amplifiers.
Canada is also involved in the SKA Regional Centre Network (SRCNet). This is an international effort to design, develop and operate a distributed interoperable network of regional centres to support the science exploitation of the SKA data. The activities of the SRCNet are overseen by a Steering Committee, and the design and prototyping work is organised into six working groups. Thirteen Canadian representatives from the NRC and universities serve on the Committee and its working groups.
As well as working on the SKA project itself, Canadian astronomers are developing a variety of new facilities and experiments aimed at testing the technology needed for the SKAO.
Foremost amongst these is the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), a unique radio telescope which is making a three-dimensional map of the Dark Energy that is accelerating the expansion of the Universe. A Canadian researcher is also the lead investigator on POSSUM, one of nine large survey science projects being carried out by the SKA pathfinder ASKAP, and Canadians are heavily involved in many of the other formally designated SKA pathfinders and prototypes.
Developing New Technologies
During the pre-construction phase, Canada was involved in several of the SKA design consortia, developing valuable technological contributions, including:
- Central Signal Processor (CSP) consortium: The NRC, with assistance from industry partner MDA, led the CSP consortium, consisting of designing the correlators and beam formers, non-imaging pulsar search and timing processors.
- Dish Consortium: Canada contributed to the development of Low Noise Amplifiers (LNAs), Radio Frequency Digitisers, and Phased-array Feeds (PAF). Partners included: Nanowave Technologies, the NRC and the University of Calgary.
- Science Data Processor (SDP) Consortium: Canada contributed to the UK-led SDP consortium by helping address the “grand data challenge” arising from the vast daily data volumes that will be processed by the SKA, from data delivery to archive processing and access, the data-processing pipeline and data visualization. Domestic partners included: CANARIE, Calgary Scientific, McGill University, the NRC’s Canadian Astronomy Data Centre, the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, the University of Calgary, Rackforce. International partners included the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, South Africa and Australia.
- Telescope Manager Consortium: Building on experience from the Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) project, the NRC participated in the design of the monitor and control system and on interfaces to the SKA Telescope Manager.
Case study: What next generation data centres could learn from SKA
The SKA telescopes require very fast processing of enormous amounts of data – a common challenge, but pushed to the extreme. The National Research Council of Canada and MDA worked together to lead the design of the SKA Mid-Correlator/Beamformer (CBF). The CBF takes in wideband data from all 197 antennas and produces the visibilities needed to make astronomical images, as well as the data sums used to search for very fast astronomical transients and pulses. It will need to process data being transferred hundreds of thousands of times faster than average Canadian broadband download speeds – but at a fraction of the cost, power and heat generation. In a world that is increasingly dependent on using more data, faster, this sort of advanced high-efficiency processing is just what is needed for next-generation data centres, and many other applications across the digital world.
Case Study: What telecommunications and quantum computing might gain from SKA
Radio signals from astronomical sources are incredibly faint, so astronomers build huge sets of antennas, like the SKA, to gather and concentrate those signals so they can be detected. But one still has to take these weak signals and amplify them without adding a lot of unwanted noise in the process. The Low Noise Amplifiers (LNAs) developed by the National Research Council of Canada for the SKA project, currently in use on the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa, are several times better than pre-SKA state-of-the-art LNAs and introduce 10 to 1000 times less unwanted noise than commercial satellite-communication LNAs. This technology has potential applications in diverse areas, from telecommunications to quantum computing.
The digital economy relies on processing and transmitting vast amounts of data both quickly and cheaply. Canada’s major technological contributions to the SKA project address these challenges and will open commercialisation opportunities for Canadian companies across a range of industrial sectors.
Already, the National Research Council of Canada has actively engaged industry through design phase sub-contracts, project and data management services, as well as material and equipment design and construction of the telescope dish, computer hardware and software systems. A number of Canadian companies have been involved in this technology design work since 2015.
News from Canada
- Michael Rupen Observer, SKAO Council, and Director, Radio Astronomy Directorate, National Research Council of Canada
- Kristine Spekkens Member of SKAO’s Science and Engineering Advisory Council; Canadian SKA Science Director; Member of the ACURA Advisory Committee on the SKA; and Professor, Royal Military College of Canada and Queen's University