SKA: collaboration to map a billion galaxies to the edge of our Universe

Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Newton's Laws of Motion and other fundamental assumptions may be revised through colossal data analysis exploration flowing from the 'Square Kilometre Array' Radio Telescope
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor on

 An initiative to address fundamental unanswered questions and hypothesis about the macrocosm, including how the first stars and galaxies formed and have evolved, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity and the search for life beyond Earth is rapidly taking shape.

The result of a massive global collaboration that will will require very high performance central computing engines, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) puts into perspective recent hype about 'big data': as the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope, long-haul links with a capacity 10 times greater than all current global Internet traffic will be required to process the immense amount of data generated.


An intergalactic example of the power of modern technology aligned with tight collaboration, the SKA organization is currently headquartered at Jodrell Bank in the UK, where clear views of the universe are relatively rare, and will be built in the southern hemisphere in Sub-Saharan states with cores in South Africa and Australia, where the view of the Milky Way Galaxy is best and radio interference least. Mark Birkinshaw explains in this 100 second clip on Physics World further details of SKA, which is now well under way. 

Scheduled to begin in 2016, with initial observations by 2019 and full operation by 2024, the formal SKA Organisation was formed in November 2011, when the project moved from a collaboration to an independent, not for profit company. 

Australia's Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Canada's National Research Council, China's  National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics, New Zealand's Ministry of Economic Development, South Africa's National Research Foundation, Sweden's Onsala Space Observatory, The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and the United Kingdom's Science and Technology Facilities Council are the ten founding members, with India's National Centre for Radio Astrophysics an associate member. Germany has indicated its intention to join, and the project is sure to attract more organizations as it gains momentum.

We are living in an extremely exciting era of big science, with the hunt for the Higg's Bosun particle another example of a large-scale, worldwide scientific project, this time focused at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. The LHC was built with over 10,000 scientists and engineers collaborating from over 100 countries, as well as hundreds of universities and laboratories.

What projects like SKA and the LHC have in common are the immense global collaboration power we now have at our disposal, and the maturation levels of the way we are using them. US president Kennedy focused his country and allies on on getting to the moon in the 60's, a single mindedness to focus and succeed often used to inpire by business leadership. HP's 'Project Moonshot' is a good example, while Morten Hanson cited the power of this 'can do' approach in his 2009 book 'Collaboration'...today in our global business the huge differentiators between success and failure are essentially innovation, collaboration and a clear view of what it will take to achieve goals.

Large organizations have huge short term issues with having to focus on creative ways to exceed quarterly Wall Street expectations, where more agile unlisted firms and organizations like CERN rely on funding and momentum to grow. Businesses and global collaborations alike struggle with silos and fiefdoms: breaking free of bureaucracy and duplicated effort to allow efforts to converge and flow using modern collaborative techniques empowered by forward thinking digital transformation are tremendous acceleration agents in the most difficult circumstances.

 The SKA was originally conceived way back in 1991 with an international working group set up in 1993.  A first Memorandum of Agreement was signed in 2000, with full SKA design achieved in 2012 -  projected to cost €1.5 (around 2.2 billion USD)  for phases 1 and 2 completing in 2024. SKA's tin cup is out amongst the member organizations, just as it is in large companies to fund initiatives. 

The LHC project was started in the '80's, and SKA may go through some interesting mutations as it slowly takes shape just as CERN's LHC did - the differentiator is the intention and ingenuity of those who are collaborating to move the project forward, and the digital broadband connectivity acceleration between all participants enabled by the internet (invented at CERN…) 

We are living in an era of unprecedented discovery, and the SKA could throw into question basic assumptions made by mankind about how and why we exist. The digital transformation and convergence we are all experiencing is likely to both feed and be informed by this incredible project.


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