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Revamped SKAMP boosts Australia’s chances of hosting the SKA

Revamped SKAMP boosts Australia’s chances of hosting the SKA

The newly redeveloped SKAMP telescope will still undergo another two stages of upgrades

The revitalisation of the Square Kilometre Array Molonglo Prototype (SKAMP), a joint effort between the University of Sydney and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), is expected to help further Australia’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope over rival South Africa.

According to SKAMP director, Dick Hunstead, the SKAMP will be based on similar technology to the SKA -- field programmable gate array (FGPA) -- and thus, should help improve Australia’s chances of hosting the international radio telescope.

“FPGA technology is still relatively new in astronomy, but all three Australian SKA pathfinders (ASKAP, MWA and SKAMP) are basing their back-end signal processing on this technology in the expectation that it will also be used in SKA,” Hunstead said. “We believe that the work done by CSIRO/CASS [CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science] to develop multi-layer multi-FPGA boards is a major step along the way.

Originally called the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (MOST), the ‘new’ SKAMP is an updated model of the MOST but still has two remaining upgrades left before its completion.

The first stage of the upgrades, referred to as SKAMP I, took three years to complete and includes the construction and installation of a 96 station continuum correlator with 3MHz of bandwidth centred at 843 MHz.

According to the SKAMP project plan (PDF), the goal of the correlator is to achieve “high dynamic range imaging with correlation processing, in parallel with the existing data acquisition systems”.

Currently undergoing stage two of the upgrades, SKAMP II will include the development and construction of a 2048 channel spectral-line correlator with 100MHz of bandwidth centred at 843 MHz, a new local oscillator and the installation of optic fibre feeds that will enable signals from the antenna sections to be digitised in the field and returned to the central control buildings, says Hunstead.

SKAMP III, which is the completed redesign, will feature a newly produced 300-1420 MHz continuous spectral line capability with 50 MHz of bandwidth, and new feeds and mesh.

The project plan states that the new feeds will be combined in eight-element sections, with two new low-noise amplifiers for each element, for “full polarisation capability to minimise system noise”.

Hunstead says that with the redevelopment, the SKAMP is more flexible, three times more sensitive, has 10 times more bandwidth, and is able to make better-quality images of objects in space.

“Australia is the best site from the point of view of freedom from radio frequency inteference, but that is only one of several issues to be taken into account in deciding on a site for SKA,” he said.

The technological advancements used in the SKAMP upgrades are expected to be applied to the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), which is also being developed by CSIRO. The ASKAP is expected to be operating in 2011 and is due to be completed by 2013, says Hunstead.

In June Australia's bid to host the $13 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project became an international effort following new agreements forged with radio astronomy organisations in the Netherlands and Italy.

In May work commenced on the rollout of fibre optic backhaul between Perth and Geraldton in Western Australia that will help Australia’s bid for the SKA.

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