Connectivity boost for SALT, SKA

29 October 2010

South African astronomy is set to receive a major boost, in the form of R100-million, ultra-high speed broadband link between the remote Northern Cape sites of the Southern African Large Telescope and Square Kilometre Array and the SA National Research Network backbone in Cape Town.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has selected a Neotel/Broadband Infraco partnership to install the 10 gigabit per second fibre-optic link. The SA National Research Network (SANReN) backbone is an undertaking of the CSIR’s Meraka Institute.

The ultra-high speed link will enable local and international researchers to process data from the Southern African Large Telescope and the Karoo Array Telescope in near real time, and significantly boost South Africa’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

SKA bid, MeerKAT telescope

Allied with eight other African countries, South Africa is competing against Australia (allied with New Zealand) to host the €1.5-billion SKA, a 3 000-dish radio imaging telescope massively more powerful than any such instrument ever built.

As part of its SKA bid, South Africa is currently building the 80-dish Karoo Array Telescope, or MeerKAT, in a radio astronomy reserve near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

The MeerKAT, due to be commissioned in 2014/15, will be a powerful scientific instrument in its own right – SKA South Africa recently announced that more than 43 000 hours of observation time had been allocated to radio astronomers from Africa and around the world to do research using the telescope.

When the new high-speed link goes live in six to 10 months’ time, researchers will be able to get real-time access to data already being yielded by the MeerKAT’s precursor, the seven-dish KAT-7 demonstrator radio telescope.

Southern African Large Telescope

The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), also situated in the remote Karoo region of the Northern Cape, at the site of the South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland, will likewise benefit from the new link.

Inaugurated in November 2005, SALT – the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere – has been hamstrung by both imaging problems and data communication issues.

While SALT’s imaging problems have recently been sorted out, it still has to make do with a miserly four megabit per second Telkom line to Cape Town. The new link will put it in a different league altogether.

‘Demonstrates our ability to invest’

The installation of the new link will demonstrate “that South Africa can provide the bandwidth needed to fulfil the requirements of the full SKA, and will serve as a significant boost to the South African SKA bid,” Department of Science and Technology chief director Daniel Adams said this week.

National Research Foundation CEO Albert van Jaarsveld said the development paved the way for international collaborators to actively make use of the facilities that will be provided by the two telescope sites.

With the recent successful installation of seven dishes at the SKA site, the 10 Gbps link could not have come at a better time, he said, adding that researchers were eager to get access to the data being produced at the two sites.

“The broadband link will enable not only South African but also international researchere to have near real-time access to the data,” he said. “Furthermore, the broadband link demonstrates our ability to invest heavily in scientific infrastructure in support of our desire to win the SKA bid.”

SAinfo reporter

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