Cambridge Consultants has hand in getting the largest telescope out of the lab

July 10, 2012 // By Jean-Pierre Joosting
So when Cambridge Consultants has been tasked with turning an antenna design for the world’s largest radio telescope into a viable product for volume manufacturing — no ordinary challenge. The statistics are vast – a central computer with the processing power of 100 million PCs, enough optical fibre to wrap twice around the earth, and raw data to fill 15 million 64 GB iPods every day.

The antennas for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) have to be easy to assemble in the field and be able to withstand up to 50 years of use, potentially in harsh desert conditions. And millions of them need to be manufactured with no degradation of performance and at the lowest possible cost. When completed, they are expected to produce more than 100 times today’s global internet traffic.

A team at the University of Cambridge designed and tested an antenna that met the performance requirements for the telescope, which will be thousands of times more powerful than existing radio telescopes. But it would be too expensive to manufacture in large numbers. So Cambridge Consultants partnered with the university to produce a version of the antenna with a fully integrated wideband receiver that uses low-cost manufacturing techniques and is simple to assemble and install. This work – which has just been completed – represents a major step towards a production-ready design.

“The challenge of volume manufacture is at the forefront of our work with the SKA programme,” said Gary Kemp, Programme Director at Cambridge Consultants. “The two-metre-tall antennas will have to be manufactured in very high volumes — more than 2.5 million will be required, in addition to the 40 million antennas of the mid-frequency array. So ‘commercialising’ the design through the design for manufacture process is critical to the feasibility of the SKA. To see a mature design for part of the physical hardware that will make up the core of the world’s biggest telescope is an important step towards the construction of the final instrument.”

Cambridge Consultants has worked with the SKA project for the last five years, helping to tackle the ‘big science’ problems involved in designing and building the revolutionary telescope which will enable scientists to probe deep space and address fundamental unanswered questions about the universe. Millions of receivers will be linked together across an area the