The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) is a new type of radio telescope designed and built by CSIRO. Our novel application of ‘phased array’ technology, combined with cutting-edge digital signal processing systems makes ASKAP a world-leading radio telescope.

CSIRO's Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia.

The ASKAP telescope makes images of radio signals from the sky, allowing astronomers to view the Universe at wavelengths that our eyes cannot see. It is a type of radio telescope known as an ‘interferometer’. This means it uses many antennas acting together as one large telescope. In our case, ASKAP has 36 dish antennas spread out over six kilometres in outback Western Australia.

By combining the signals from 36 smaller dishes, we can make high-resolution images at a fraction of the expense of building an extremely large dish with the same eye for detail.

ASKAP's key feature is its wide field of view, generated by its unique chequerboard Phased Array Feed (PAF) receivers. Together with specialised digital systems, a PAF creates 36 separate (simultaneous) beams on the sky which are mosaicked together into a large single image. This gives ASKAP the ability to rapidly survey large areas of the sky – making it one of the world's fastest survey radio telescopes. ASKAP will help to answer some of the most fundamental questions of 21st century astronomy and astrophysics involving dark matter, dark energy, the nature of gravity, the origins of the first stars, the evolution of galaxies and the properties of magnetic fields in space.

Dr Minh Huynh, Research Astronomer, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science: As Humans we have always been fascinated by the night sky and what’s out there. We want to understand our own Milky Way galaxy and learn more about the wider Universe.

Antony Schinckel, Assistant Director, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science: ASKAP is truly amazing, its 36 separate antennas acting together as one big telescope.

But the most innovative part of ASKAP isn’t the dishes. The dishes just act as the big collecting area that bounce the radio waves up to the detector.

That detector, that’s the exciting part.

Older sensors just captured one signal, but we’ve designed a new sensor used a phased array feed, a PAF, that captures 94 signals at once.

Dr Grant Hampson, Research Engineer, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science: This is cutting edge technology. A thousand-million-million operations per second, execute twenty-four-seven in the middle of nowhere.

And this is probably a factor of 100 times faster than existing radioastronomy systems.

Dr Minh Huynh, Research Astronomer, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science: With ASKAP, we’re working with some of the best minds in the country to develop game-changing systems and technologies at our world-leading astronomy research facility, in outback Western Australia.

It’s so exciting that we are unlocking a better future of space science right here in Australia, to benefit people all around the world. 

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope :  ASKAP is a revolutionary 36-dish radio telescope designed by CSIRO with advanced receiver technology to help solve some of the biggest mysteries of the Universe.

CSIRO-designed receivers

ASKAP can image an area the size of the Southern Cross in a single pointing.

Radio telescopes use specialised cameras called receivers, to detect and amplify faint radio waves from space. One of the challenges facing radio astronomers, was the limited region of the sky that could be seen by conventional receivers at any one time. To solve this challenge, we invented a revolutionary new chequerboard Phased Array Feed receiver, known as a PAF.

These specialised receivers are like an insect’s compound eye on the sky that can look in many directions at once. They house hundreds of detectors that enable astronomers to perform multi-directional searches of the sky simultaneously. They can see an area 40 times larger than a conventional receiver.  

The ASKAP ‘PAF’ receiver concept came from CSIRO’s Dr John O’Sullivan. Dr O’Sullivan is also credited with the core technology behind fast Wi-Fi which CSIRO also invented.

Dr John O’Sullivan with an ASKAP PAF prototype.

Construction began with a 6-antenna prototype system that made the first PAF image and led to a revised, second-generation design which was deployed on all 36 antennas over several years.

ASKAP fast facts

  • ASKAP is an array of 36 dish antennas each with a diameter of 12 metres
  • The antennas stand three storeys tall and are spread out over distances up to six kilometres
  • Linked by fibre-optic cable, the antennas work together as one telescope
  • At the apex of each antenna is a novel radio camera called a Phased Array Feed receiver
  • ASKAP is located on the traditional lands of the Wajarri people in Western Australia.

A wider view of the Universe

ASKAP is designed to enable a new kind of radio astronomy using rapid mapping technology to conduct all-sky surveys that can be used by astronomers worldwide. Most of the objects detected by the telescope are galaxies outside our own Milky Way galaxy. By cataloguing millions of radio galaxies, we will study the structure and evolution of the universe.

The history of astronomy has involved many detailed studies of small numbers of objects, but to understand how galaxies really work we need to understand their environment and context. This requires detecting and cataloguing millions of sources so that entire populations can be studied statistically.

Galaxies are the building blocks of the Universe. Before ASKAP, about two million galaxies had been detected in the entire 60-year history of radio astronomy at the wavelengths we study. ASKAP’s first all-sky survey has catalogued about three million galaxies, adding significantly to our knowledge in its first year of operation. After five years, we expect ASKAP will discover tens of millions of new galaxies.

[Music plays]

[Image shows a starry sky with a spinning earth globe, which zooms in on Western Australia. Concentric blue lines move around a point, and text appears: Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory]

[Image changes to show a red earth desert landscape, and the camera pans across the landscape]

[Image changes to show a series of telescopes and the text appears: CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope, Surveying the structure and evolution of the universe]

[Image changes to show the telescopes from directly above, then shows two vehicles driving between the telescopes]

[Image changes to follow the two vehicles, then focuses on the telescopes]

[Image changes to show a closer image of the telescope, and the text appears: Equipped with wide-field phased array receivers, CSIRO technology surveying the sky faster than ever before]

[Image changes to show the landscape with the telescopes]

[Image changes to show tracks on a desert landscape with two vehicles, then changes to show a checkerboard pattern installation of small telescopes]

[Image changes to show a closer view of the small telescopes and the text appears: Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) 4096-dipole antenna low-frequency telescope]

[Image shows the camera scanning around the telescopes and then zooms in on one telescope]

[Image changes to show a man’s face, and then changes to show the small telescopes]

[Image changes to show a signpost and text appears: MWSA has helped map more than 300,000 galaxies]

[Image changes to show a view from above, and then zooms further to show the entire installation]

[Image changes to show a complex of buildings and text appears: MRO Control Building, High tech custom supercomputing facility]

[Image changes to focus on one building, then an image appears of a woman walking through the door of the building]

[Image changes to show man walking along a corridor of glass doors, and passing through a door]

[Image changes to show bundled data cables connected to a blue grid, then zooms out to show stacks of similar objects]

[Image changes to show a vehicle driving towards a large solar array power station, and text appears: MRO Solar Hybrid Power Station, Astronomy’s first major hybrid energy system]

[Image changes to show the solar panels, and the camera pans along the panels]

[Image changes to show a shipping container, and text appears: One of Australia’s largest lithium-ion batteries (2.5MWh) Renewable energy storage – maximising the use of renewable power]

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[Image changes to show an aerial view of the battery site, then change to show a vehicle moving towards a circular pattern of antennae. Text appears: ‘AAVS’ Antenna Test Platform, Testing the next generation of telescope technology]

[Image changes to show two men walking amongst an array of base plate rings on the ground, then shows the two men working on a triangular antenna above a ring]

[Image changes to show an array of triangular antennae, and text appears: New antenna and software technology will pave the way for the Square Kilometre Array telescope]

[Images pan through of two men working on the antennae, an aerial view of the site, and a series of completed antennae. Text appears: Square Kilometre Array, 131,000 antennas build in Australia from 2020 along with hundreds of dish antennas in South Africa]

[Image changes to pan across a series of square kilometre array antennas dotting the landscape around a telescope]

[Image changes to show the blue sky, and then shows a starry sky]

[Image changes to show the Square Kilometre Array logo, the CSIRO logo, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research Logo, the Australian Government logo and the Western Australian logo]

[Text appears: We acknowledge the Wajarrai Yamaji as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) site. The MRO and the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope are managed and operated by CSIRO – www.csiro.au. The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope is an international collaboration led and operated by Curtin University – mwatelescope.org. The ‘AAVS’ test platform is an initiative of the Aperture Array Design and Construct (AADC) SKA consortium hosted by the MWA – skatelescope.org/lfaa. The international Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) is a joint venture between Curtin University and the University of Western Australia]

World leading radio astronomy in the Aussie outback

Where is ASKAP located?

ASKAP is located at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia (WA). The MRO is about 700 kilometres north of Perth in the Murchison Shire, on the traditional lands of the Wajarri Yamaji. Situated in Mid West WA, the Shire covers an area of 49,500 square kilometers and has a population of 120 people.

This remote location is ideal for radio astronomy as there is minimal interference from Earth-based radio transmissions. In the same way that it is necessary for us to avoid city-lights when we’re looking up at the stars, radio telescopes must avoid other radio communication networks that disrupt the signals being received from space.  

The MRO was established in 2009 and is one of the newest observatories in the world. It already hosts three world-class radio telescopes and will be the Australian host site for the Square Kilometre Array telescope, in the 2020s.

At the heart of ASKAP is our custom-designed ‘correlator’, a high-speed digital signal processing system that extracts astronomy signals from this torrent of information.

The telescopes at the MRO generate very large volumes of data which are processed on site before being sent to the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth. 

Due to radio quiet requirements, it’s not possible to visit the MRO, apart from specific public open days, but you can take this virtual tour any time.

ASKAP technologies

Two key technologies give ASKAP its capabilities – wide-field PAF receivers and high-speed digital signal processing technology deployed on custom hardware at the MRO, along with custom software running on a supercomputer in Perth. CSIRO engineers developed PAF technology for radio astronomy using a chequerboard array of small receptors and low-noise amplifiers.

ASKAP data and images

ASKAP brings radio astronomy into a data intensive era. The PAF receivers create much more data than a conventional receiver. The telescope’s 36 receivers generate data at the rate of 100 trillion bits per second – more than Australia’s entire internet traffic!

This is too much data to send outside the MRO. To solve this data challenge, we designed a high-speed digital signal processing system, made up of 800 custom-designed circuit boards. This signal processing system is at the heart of ASKAP and it is known as the ‘correlator’. The correlator combines the signals from each antenna and then streams about 40 gigabits of data per second to Perth.

Streaming from the MRO to Perth, ASKAP data travels along high bandwidth (80 Gb/second) optic fibre to the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre that transforms it into astronomical images. ASKAP data is processed on The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre’s ‘Galaxy’ computer. Using special CSIRO-designed software known as ‘ASKAPsoft’, this pipeline produces science-ready images from ASKAP data using advanced image processing techniques.

ASKAP science

ASKAP became operational in 2019 and concluded its first pilot surveys in 2020. These early projects were designed to test the telescope’s capabilities and provide example data with which to refine processing strategies.

The ASKAP ‘WALLABY’ science team surveyed three regions around known galaxy clusters, looking specifically for radio emissions from neutral hydrogen gas, which is the fuel for star formation. The map they made of the Hydra cluster shows about 150 sources, compared to the eight discovered in previous images made with other telescopes.

The ASKAP ‘GASKAP’ science team also studies hydrogen gas, but closer to home. One of their first targets was the Small Magellanic Cloud, a very nearby galaxy that orbits our own Milky Way. This image shows more detail than ever before, including filaments of gas moving much faster than expected.

The ASKAP ‘CRAFT’ science team studies sources that only exist for a millisecond – brief flashes of radio waves known as fast radio bursts. These are of great interest for two reasons; their origin is unknown and likely to involve an extremely high-energy object, and their brief nature makes it possible to detect the influence of intergalactic matter on the path from the source to Earth. ASKAP is also one of the few radio telescopes capable of precisely locating the direction from which a fast radio burst came. This capability was used to find “missing matter” that had puzzled cosmologists for years.

The Rapid ASKAP Continuum Survey

In a demonstration of ASKAP’s key capabilities, CSIRO conducted an all-sky survey in 2020 as part of the telescope’s final commissioning phase. The Rapid ASKAP Continuum Survey (RACS) covered the entire sky in just 300 hours of telescope time. RACS is truly ‘rapid’, compared to earlier comparable radio surveys by major world telescopes, which used thousands of hours of telescope time.

With its wide field of view, ASKAP was able to combine 903 images to create the sky map. This is significantly less than the tens of thousands of images needed for earlier surveys.

RACS images are five times more sensitive than what’s been done before, and the images reveal twice the level of detail of any comparable survey.

RACS generated 13.5 exabytes of raw data - which were processed using hardware and software custom-built by CSIRO.

This record-breaking result demonstrates an all-sky survey can be done in weeks instead of years. Over the next few years, ASKAP is expected to conduct even more sensitive surveys in different wavelength bands. Together these 903 images create a new atlas, like a ‘Google-map’ of the Universe.

The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre’s ‘Galaxy’ supercomputer converted the data into 2D radio images containing a total of 70 billion pixels. Each RACS image and associated data occupies about 50 Gbytes; about 50 TBytes for the whole survey.

RACS data is freely available to the public and the astronomy community via the CSIRO data portal CASDA.

This census of the Universe will be used by astronomers around the world to explore the unknown and study everything from star formation to how galaxies and their super-massive black holes evolve and interact. This survey measures millions of galaxies – this is important for statistical investigations into large populations.

RACS is a reference map of the entire sky which we can use for comparison with future surveys. It can also be used to find giant galaxies which are formed due to powerful supermassive black holes accreting and expelling huge jets of material.

RACS virtual tour

Astronomers expect ASKAP’s technology will enable many scientific discoveries about the Universe, for years to come. They are just at the start of the journey using ASKAP’s pioneering technology.

ASKAP and Australian industry

Collaboration with industry has played a crucial role in the development of ASKAP, enabling significant progress on ASKAP's computing architecture, low-noise amplifier design, and geo-exchange cooling systems.

For example, we worked closely with specialist electronics manufacturer Puzzle Precision, based in Newcastle, NSW, who delivered 20,000 printed circuit boards (made from six million individual components) and mechanical assemblies, with very high reliability, required for ASKAP's specialised Phased Array Feed receivers.

ASKAP’s PAFs and on-site digital signal processing hardware were designed by CSIRO and built by Puzzle Precision, with final assembly of the PAFs being done at the Marsfield radio physics laboratory.

[Image appears of satellite dishes against the night sky and text appears: Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope Murchison, Western Australia]

[Images move through of Lisa Harvey-Smith and Antony Schinckel looking at a computer screen and then Lisa Harvey-Smith talking to the camera and text appears: Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science]

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith: It’s amazing when you look out into the universe and you see something that no human has ever seen before.

[Music plays and the image changes to show a satellite dish and then the camera zooms out to show an aerial view of a site of satellite dishes and text appears: ASKAP, Innovative technology built in partnership with industry]

[Image changes to show Lisa Harvey-Smith and Antony Schinckel looking at a computer screen and then the image changes to show Antony talking to the camera and text appears: Antony Schinckel, Assistant Director, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science and ASKAP Founding Director]

Antony Schinckel: ASKAP is truly amazing.

[Images move through of the satellite dishes of the Square Kilometre Array, cars moving along a road past the satellite dishes, and then Antony talking to the camera]

It’s 36 separate antennas acting together as one big telescope but the most innovative part of ASKAP isn’t the dishes. The dishes just act as the big collecting area to bounce the radio waves up to the detector.

[Image changes to show a close-up view of a satellite dish and the camera pans up to show the detector at the top and text appears: Radio Frequency Detector, Frequency range 700-1800 MHz]

That detector, that’s the exciting part.

[Music plays and the images move through of a close-up view of the detector, Antony talking to the camera, a phased array feed, and a male working on the phased array feed and text appears: A phased array feed (PAF) captures 94 signals at once]

Older sensors just captured one signal but we’ve designed a new sensor using a phased array feed, a PAF, that captures 94 signals at once.

[Music plays and the image changes to show a group of satellite dishes against the night sky and then the image changes to show Lisa Harvey-Smith talking to the camera]

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith: Astronomers used to spend years and years trying to study the whole sky and now we can do it in an instant.

[Music plays and the image changes to show a diagram of the night sky and then the image changes to show Lisa Harvey-Smith’s face]

[Image changes to show Dr Douglas Bock talking to the camera and text appears: Dr Douglas Bock, Director, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science]

Dr Douglas Bock: But to do that we have to build a telescope that essentially is a super computer that has enormous data rates.

[Music plays and images move through of Dr Grant Hampson looking at a control board lit up and then writing in a notebook]

Dr Grant Hampson: This is cutting edge technology.

[Images move through of Grant talking, Grant working on a control board, Grant talking to the camera, an aerial view of buildings in the desert and then the control board and text appears: Dr Grant Hampson, Research Engineer, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science]

A thousand, million, million, operations per second executed 24/7 in the middle of nowhere and this is probably a factor of 100 times faster than the existing radio astronomy systems.

[Images move through of Mia Baquiran standing in front of a computer system talking, a control board and then Mia talking again and text appears: Mia Baquiran, Digital Systems Engineer, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, That kind of capability is made possible by industry]

Mia Baquiran: The scale at which we’re processing information, it’s, that kind of capability is made possible by industry and our ability to collaborate with them.

[Music plays and images move through of five males gathered around a circuit board, a close-up of a circuit board, a view of the workshop and Craig Coburn talking to the camera and text appears: Craig Coburn, Director, Puzzle Precision, Collaborating with industry to create ASKAP, Puzzle Precision, Newcastle NSW]

Craig Coburn: We’re Puzzle Precision.

[Image changes to show Kescia Ball standing in the workshop and talking to the camera and text appears: Kescia Ball, CEO, Puzzle Precision]

Kescia Ball: We operate out of Newcastle, New South Wales and have done since 1994.

[Image changes to show a circuit board being soldered and then the image changes to show a tray of circuit boards and then the image changes to show Kescia talking to the camera]

We had approximately 20,000 circuit boards go through our facility for the ASKAP project.

[Images move through of a machine, Matthew Shields talking to the camera, a circuit board running through a machine, and Matthew talking to the camera and text appears: Matthew Shields, Platform Solution Architect, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science]

Matthew Shields: We’ve taken over 6,000,000 components and each of these components are precision placed by machine and then they’re soldered down, and the soldering is the secret here.

[Images move through of a male working on a computer and looking at a circuit board, Craig talking to the camera and a male looking at a computer screen and then a circuit board]

Craig Coburn: The boards we make need to be able to handle extremely harsh environments without failure.

[Images move through to show Adam Macleod talking to the camera, three males looking at a computer screen, and then Adam talking again and text appears: Adam Macleod, ASKAP Electronics Production Manager, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science]

Adam Macleod: With Puzzle, this is not business as usual. This is having a partner who will work with us to refine the designs and make sure they’re manufacturable.

[Images move through of Craig, Matthew and another male in the workshop and then the image changes to show Antony talking to the camera]

Antony Schinckel: These are not systems you can just buy off the shelf.

[Image changes to show a close-up view of a circuit board and then the camera zooms out to show a group of males looking at the circuit board]

No one makes anything this powerful and specialised. That’s why we need to work with industry.

[Image changes to show Antony talking to the camera and then the image changes to show a male writing on a whiteboard and then the image changes to show a group looking at a circuit board]

We need to learn from industry and we need to help industry solve Australia’s big challenges.

[Music plays and the camera zooms in on the circuit board and then the image changes to show people working on a circuit board and then the image changes to show Kescia talking]

Kescia Ball: The work that CSIRO gives us, it is world class work.

[Images move through of components for a circuit board, a group in conversation, Female 3 talking, a control board, two people looking at a circuit board and Kescia talking to the camera]

They come to us with new ideas that haven’t really been tried and we haven’t seen before, and we have to figure them out and it’s actually pushing our innovation and it’s actually pushing us further.

[Image changes to show three males walking past a work bench and then the image changes to show Craig talking to the camera]

Craig Coburn: It has expanded our horizons, there’s no doubt about that.

[Images move through of a rear view of a male walking through the workshop, employees working in the workshop, and Female 3 talking to the camera]

Kescia Ball: We have actually expanded our facility and our team to take on those new capabilities and take those on to new projects.

[Music plays and images move through of employees working in the workshop and text appears: Puzzle’s workforce grew by 50% to create ASKAP. Most of the team is young. All are local.]

[Image changes to show Jamie and Sarah standing and talking to the camera and text appears: Jamie and Sarah, Senior Staff, Puzzle Precision]

Sarah: I didn’t have any skills to come here. I’ve learnt them all on the job.

[Images move through of employees at work and then the image changes back to show Sarah talking to the camera and then the image changes to show employees at work]

I really like it. It’s challenging, and you learn new things every day. Not everyone gets to do that.

[Image changes to show Sarah standing next to another female and talking to the camera]

So, this is pretty cool. Yeah.

[Music plays and text appears on a black screen: At Puzzle and beyond, ASKAP has invested more than $100 million in Australian jobs and innovation]

Antony Schinckel: Well of course we’re doing astronomy.

[Image changes to show Antony talking to the camera]

We’re trying to understand the universe but we’re doing so much more. We’re not just building telescopes. We’re building industry. We’re building economy and we’re building Australia’s capacity for innovation in the future.

[Images move through of cars moving down roads through the ASKAP array in the desert and then the image changes to show Matthew talking to the camera]

Matthew Shields: Through ASKAP we’ve built systems that will have flow on effects for industry across Australia and possibly the world.

[Music plays and images move through of a large type of circuit board, a close-up of the satellite dish and then Lisa Harvey-Smith talking to the camera]

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith: The awesome thing about science is we do it out of curiosity. We don’t know how it’s going to benefit everyone but you know, look at Wi-Fi in this very building here in Sydney. Wi-Fi was developed by a team who were trying to understand black holes.

[Camera zooms in on Lisa Harvey-Smith as she talks to the camera]

So, you know, we just don’t know what amazing benefits are going to come from the ASKAP project for the wider world. But it’s going to be very exciting to find out.

[Music plays and the image changes to show an aerial view of the ASKAP array in the desert and the camera pans around the site in a clockwise direction and text appears: CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, Western Australia, We acknowledge the Wajarri Yamatji as the traditional owners of the Observatory site]

[Music continues to play and CSIRO logo and text appears: Australia’s innovation catalyst]

ASKAP :  We partnered with Puzzle Precision to build our innovative radio receivers.

Building for the future

ASKAP is one of the precursor instruments to an international project to build the world’s largest radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). SKA telescopes will be built in South Africa and Australia.

ASKAP is carrying out world-class research and providing invaluable science and technology insights for the development of the SKA. In developing ASKAP, the goal was to conduct breakthrough science while simultaneously preparing the astronomy community for the deluge of data that a telescope like the SKA would produce. When ASKAP was being designed, PAF technology had never been used in radio astronomy and pushed the limits of theoretical computational capacity.

ASKAP is demonstrating the high-performance processing required to meet the SKA data challenges. Using the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre , and custom-written software developed by CSIRO, ‘ASKAPsoft’, we produce science-ready datasets of many Terabytes for each observation, served to astronomers through ASKAP’s science data archive, CASDA.

 

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