Making the MOST of SKAMP

27 September 2010

The Sydney Institute for Astronomy (SIfA) based within the University of Sydney's School of Physics, and CSIRO have collaborated in a project that will transform an existing university radio telescope into a world-class instrument.

SKAMP handover.
SKAMP handover.

The University contracted CSIRO to assist in developing a signal-processing system to dramatically boost the performance of the existing Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (MOST) as part of its transformation to the Square Kilometre Array Molonglo Prototype (SKAMP).

The heart of the new system is based on programmable logic chip technology which has taken SKAMP to an international level of functionality by making the telescope more flexible, three times more sensitive, with ten times more bandwidth, and able to make better-quality images of the sky.

Breakthrough technology for speed and efficiency of teraflop computational loads is an important part of the design of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international project to build a radio telescope, which will be 100 times more sensitive than any existing radio telescope with one million square metres of collecting area.

SKAMP is part of the University and CSIRO program to develop and test new technology leading to the SKA. "This project has given our telescope a whole new capability," said SKAMP project leader, Professor Anne Green. "It looks the same, but under the bonnet it's been born again."

Duncan Campbell-Wilson, Molonglo Observatory's Site Manager, agrees, "It's been an interesting 50-year evolution here at Molonglo - from 1960 when the Mills Cross led the way in pioneering radio telescopes to its rebirth as MOST and now to SKAMP."

Mr Campbell-Wilson says that the observations with SKAMP are built on the back of innovative electronic engineering, which will allow us to look deeper into the Universe and provide spectral line capability for the first time on this telescope.

This very large University-operated radio telescope will look to the distant Universe to study evolving galaxies and will search for transient and variable radio sources, a research window wide open for new discoveries.

MOST has only 3MHz of bandwidth, centred on 843MHz. The new digital correlator and filterbank system has increased the bandwidth to 30MHz (around the same central frequency). As a result, the telescope's sensitivity has improved by a factor of three, producing deeper images with spectral information, which is something new for this telescope. The data-flow rate has increased by an astonishing factor of 10,000.

To transform MOST into SKAMP, the University has also upgraded the telescope's mechanical drive, changed the signal receivers, and replaced copper cables with fibre optics. The University plans to further enhance the telescope with a new dual polarization feed system, which will boost the bandwidth by another factor of three, up to 100 MHz, and allow measurements of cosmic magnetic fields. The frequency range has been broadened to cover from 650 MHz to 1200 MHz.

The formal handover of the complex digital system recently took place at the University of Sydney between CSIRO SKA Director, Professor Brian Boyle, SKAMP Project Leader, Professor Anne Green, and Mr Wayne Arcus of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) project.

Significant funding for the SKAMP project was provided by the Commonwealth Government, under the second round of the Major National Research Facilities program with additional substantial support from the Australian Research Council.

Contact: Debra Gooley

Phone: 02 9036 7527

Email: 08012d3b05333026243b12250224326536044f217b02151c451133