SKA Radio Antenna Station

Powering the World’s Largest Radio Telescope with a SMART “Radio-Quiet” Power Box

SKA Radio Antenna Station

Artist’s impression of a radio station antenna. Each station has 256 antennas, and the SKA-Low telescope will have 512 stations. Credit: DISR

A team of researchers, engineers, and artists developed the ‘SMART box’ to power the world’s largest radio telescope.

The Power and Signal Distribution (PaSD) SMART boxes (Small Modular Aggregation RFF Trunk) are an important part of the Square Kilometer Array Low frequency (SKA-Low) telescope, under construction in Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, Western Australia.

The SMART boxes provide electrical power to the SKA-Low telescope’s 131,072 antennas and collect signals received from the sky for off-site processing.

Development Journey

Engineering and Operations Group at Curtin University’s International Center for Radio Astronomy Research (CRAR) designed and built the first set of 24 SMART boxes, which were 10 years in the making.

Electronic board of ICAR

Electronic board designed and built by Curtin ICRAR engineering team. Credit: ICRAR

Challenges and solutions

Tom Booler, Program Manager of Engineering and Operations at ICRAR, said that only the electronic equipment must be placed between the antennas, creating a challenge for this sensitive equipment.

“The SKA-Low telescope will detect extremely weak signals that have traveled through the Universe for billions of years,” he said.

“To see them, the SKA-Low telescope was built in a radio-quiet environment away from the interference of modern technology.

SMART Prototype boxes

24 PaSD SMART boxes are ready to be installed at the SKA site. Credit: ICRAR

“It’s so radio quiet in the observatory that the only potential source of interference is electronics like ours, because of the proximity to the antennas. That meant our project had to meet the most stringent radio emission requirements in the entire SKA area of ​​Australia.”

The team had to find special ‘radio quiet’ areas that emit less interference, instead of more ‘noisy’ ones. These parts are then wrapped in a specially designed bag to prevent any radio waves from escaping.

These boxes have been tested at an electrical testing facility in South Africa, where they passed with flying colors.

Mihaela Safta from the Curtin node of the International Center for Radio Astronomy research explains how the group is designing a desert-proof, radio-silent power supply for the world’s largest telescope. Credit: ICRAR

“The ‘radio quiet’ results achieved by the SMART boxes designed by ICRAR were at the highest level in radio astronomy. A mobile phone on the surface of the moon will cause more interference to the antennas than the SMART boxes that sit between them,” said Mr. Booler.

Contract Prospects and Futures

A contract to build up to 12,000 SMART fit-out boxes for the SKA-Low telescope was recently awarded to Perth-based company AVI following a competitive tender process. This is Australia’s largest commitment to SKA construction, external infrastructure, and software, recognizing the benefits of the Australian Government’s investment in SKA pre-construction activities over the past decade.

ICAR Design Group

The ICAR team that helped design the PaSD SMART boxes. Credit: ICRAR

Mr. Booler said he was happy to see that SMART boxes will be built in Western Australia, a promising sign of Australia’s independence in the local industry, and one that can be used in the future.

AVI Managing Director, Tony Routledge said the company was proud to be involved.

“Being part of the SKA project is a fantastic opportunity for AVI to contribute what we have learned over thirty five years of delivering robust electrical systems to the defence, security and mining sectors. Harsh environments are our specialty. The extreme temperatures, security of entry, and low noise requirements, combined with the remoteness of this location provide more opportunities for learning and innovation,” he said.

“I think we all want to be a part of what the radio telescope will eventually reveal.”

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