Supporting the world’s largest science project

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope poses a unique challenge: how to get high-speed bandwidth, to support the world's biggest science project, into one of the most remote regions of South Africa.
Supporting the world’s largest science project
KAT-7 precursor at midnight. Image credit: Coenrad Morgan

The SKA [Square Kilometre Array] radio telescope seeks to answer many of humankind’s current questions about the universe, and even more that we don’t yet know to ask. As one of the world’s biggest science projects, the SKA will be 50 times more sensitive, and able to survey the sky 10 000 times faster, than the best radio telescopes we have today. Co-located in South Africa and Australia the SKA will be made up of thousands of radio telescopes in three unique configurations to enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail.

For TENET, working in collaboration with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) South African National Research Network (SANReN) project, the SKA poses a unique challenge: how to get high-speed bandwidth, to support the world’s biggest science project to date, into one of the most remote regions in South Africa.

Presently the SKA precursor, the South African MeerKAT radio telescope is the only instrument in operation on-site in South Africa, as construction of the full SKA array is due to start this year and continue until 2027. Already though, data from the MeerKAT has revealed fascinating new insights into our universe, showing images of cosmic features never seen before.

“The bandwidth requirements of the MeerKAT are still relatively low in comparison to what the SKA will demand,” explains Shukri Wiener, head of network engineering at TENET. To put the data demands of the SKA into perspective, a single dish will produce data at a rate comparable to all internet traffic in the early 2000s. The long-term plan, to be aligned with the build of the full SKA instrument, is to lay down dark fibre, which will allow scalable and sustainable high-speed connectivity.

This work, like the core backbone network which forms the national research and education network, is funded through a combination of public and private sources and is operated through a collaboration between TENET and the SANReN group.

“The SANReN team lay the long-haul circuits, they will procure and put down the equipment to connect the SKA site in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.” says Wiener. Once the equipment is laid TENET then operates it, liaising with the clients, in this case, the SKA scientists and engineers.

“As the operators of the network infrastructure we work closely with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which is the South African SKA team, on the transportation of data from the instrument to their various sites nationally and then internationally where the data is processed by scientists around the world,” says Wiener. “They tell us how much data they need to transport and how quickly, and we design a transport network between the relevant sites that meets those parameters.”

Laying the dark fibre

At this stage, ahead of the construction of the radio telescopes that will make up the full SKA, the laying of the dark fibre to ensure future high network speeds is still in the project phase.

“The biggest challenge is the remoteness of the site,” says Wiener. “Because there is nothing out there other than the instrument, there are no economies of scale. This means it works out more expensive than laying the fibre from Cape Town to Johannesburg, even though it is about half the distance.”

The isolation brings other challenges too, because it is so sparsely populated many of the access roads are farm roads, which run through private land. It is then necessary to get special permission from the owners of the land through which these roads run.

The project is working to lay dark fibre from the national N1 highway, which runs between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and already has dark fibre for the national backbone in place, to Carnarvon.

Big science breaking boundaries and improving lives

For many of the problems the SKA is facing in terms of massive data sets and infrastructure to support that, there are no solutions yet. The SKA team locally and globally are working to innovate and develop new technologies and methods to deliver the promise of the SKA. This includes the major challenges that come with the size of the data sets the instrument will gather. This has been described as the biggest ‘big data’ challenge in science.

“The SKA instrument is game-changing and it is a privilege to be able to support such an incredible endeavour,” says Wiener. “The positive knock-on effects of this project taking place in South Africa will extend far beyond scientific discoveries.”

Already the severely under-resourced area has seen a boost for education to build information and communication technology (ICT) skills in the Northern Cape. The project also brings other benefits like employment and infrastructure to the community. But the biggest impact is yet to come as the knock-on effects of the innovation that go into the science are felt in real-world technological improvements.

Also immeasurable is the power of a big science project like this one to capture the imaginations of, and inspire young people to follow a path of science themselves. Speaking at an event in Carnarvon in November 2017, then Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor said she hopes the town of Carnarvon will produce young men and women who solve some of the region’s big problems.

"It is my hope that out of this community will come out a young man or woman who would help the world overcome TB and malaria,” said Pandor. “It is my hope that will come out of what we are doing in Carnarvon. We want to make a difference and we believe that difference can be made through science."