SKA South Africa and NRAO to deepen collaboration in 2011

News article republished with kind permission from SKA Africa.

By Debra Shepherd, MeerKAT project office, Cape Town

On 17 September 2008, the South African SKA Project Office (SASPO) signed a formal collaboration agreement with the USA National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) with the shared goal of collaborating and cooperating to develop radio astronomy projects of common interest. In that memorandum of understanding, SASPO and NRAO resolved to collaborate on software development, data processing capabilities and joint scientific research, and to develop an active student and staff exchange program that would benefit both sides.

Jasper Horrell and Justin Jonas (SKA South Africa Project) talk to John Ford (NRAO engineer) about instrumentation for the NANOGrav project.

Jasper Horrell talks to Karen O’Neil (director of the NRAO Green Bank Observatory) about the wheel design for the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope.

Dennis Egan, machine shop supervisor at NRAO Green Bank, explains what it means to build and operate a state-of-the art machining facility to support the development of radio astronomy instrumentation.
The SKA South Africa Project and the USA’s National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) have agreed to expand their collaboration on radio astronomy research and development. This follows a visit by engineers and scientists from the South African SKA Project Office to the NRAO headquarters in Charlottesville and the Green Bank Telescope facility. The topics of collaboration range from technical and scientific through to outreach.

The SKA South Africa Project and NRAO have worked together with the Centre for Astronomy Signal Processing and Electronics Research (CASPER) group at the University of California, Berkeley on a reconfigurable open architecture computing hardware (ROACH) integrated circuit board that can be configured to do different computing tasks. This ROACH board has found ubiquitous applications in radio astronomy instrumentation, including the Green Bank Telescope and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) facilities operated by NRAO. The ROACH board is also the basis for the computer correlators used by the South African Karoo Array Telescope precursor (KAT-7) and the “epoch of re-ionization” (PAPER) experiment. In the software collaboration, the SKA South Africa Project is using the NRAO-developed CASA data processing software, and South African developers will provide critical software needed for both the MeerKAT and NRAO radio telescopes. The NRAO has sent astronomers and engineers to help with the commissioning of the KAT-7 and MeerKAT telescopes and NRAO scientists and engineers have participated in MeerKAT review panels, including the Science Advisory Committee, the Time Allocation Committee, and the Concept Design Review panel. The southern hemisphere PAPER experiment, which has both NRAO and SKA South Africa involvement, has been set up and successfully operates on the protected Karoo radio astronomy site in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa.

After two successful years of the collaboration, SASPO and NRAO have agreed to expand the scope of their collaboration. NRAO Director Fred Lo and Associate Director Phil Jewell met with SKA Africa Project Director Bernie Fanaroff and Associate Director for Science and Engineering Justin Jonas, together with assistant directors and division leads from both sides, at the NRAO offices in Charlottesville and Green Bank in November 2010. They agreed to collaborate on the development of new software, MeerKAT receivers and new instruments designed to detect gravitational waves using pulsar signals (in cooperation with the NANOGrav consortium) and the faint signals from the first stars in the “epoch of re-ionization” (PAPER). NRAO and the SKA South Africa Project will also expand their staff exchange program and will work together to design a visitor centre and outreach program to be associated with the Karoo radio astronomy reserve. The details of the collaboration will be finalised in the coming months, with the goal of signing an expanded memorandum of understanding in March 2011.