'Radio quiet' boxes will now power world's largest telescope

Engineers have designed and built the first set of 24 Small Modular Aggregation RFoF Trunk, or SMART boxes.
Mrigakshi Dixit
24 prototype PaSD SMART boxes ready to be installed at the SKA site.
24 prototype PaSD SMART boxes ready to be installed at the SKA site.


Radio telescopes detect faint radio signals arriving from distant cosmic sources. 

As a result, it is critical that the site is as silent as possible, meaning that it should be devoid of noise caused by any gadgets, such as Wi-Fi, mobile phones, telescope machines, and other electronic equipment, in and around the radio facility

Noise interference of any kind can distort or block out these signals, making astronomical studies extremely difficult. 

This is one of the primary issues a multidisciplinary team of experts recently tackled by designing an advanced "SMART box" to electrically power the Square Kilometre Array Low Frequency (SKA-Low) telescope in Western Australia.

SKA-Low is part of the upcoming world's largest ground-based astronomy facility that includes one other telescope, which has been constructed in South Africa. 

“The SKA-Low telescope will receive exquisitely faint signals that have traveled across the universe for billions of years. To detect them, the SKA-Low telescope is being built in a pristine radio quiet zone far from the interference created by modern technology,” said Tom Booler, Program Lead for Engineering and Operations at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) of the Curtin University. 

“It’s so radio quiet at the observatory site that the biggest potential source of interference is the electronics like ours, due to the proximity to the antennas. That meant our project had to meet the strictest radio emission requirements across the entire Australian SKA site,” Booler added in the official release.

The noise-free devices development took almost 10 years

Researchers, engineers, and technicians from ICRAR collaborated to design and build the first set of 24 Small Modular Aggregation RFoF Trunk, or SMART boxes. 

As the only electrical equipment to be put amid the antennae, ensuring that the boxes were fully noise-free was a significant problem. It took roughly ten years to manufacture noise-free boxes effectively. 

The official release mentioned that to replace the more “noisy” parts; the team had to obtain specialized “radio quiet” parts that create minimum interference. The components were then enclosed in a specially constructed casing to prevent stray radio waves from escaping. 

The boxes underwent successful testing at a specialized electromagnetic test facility located in South Africa. 

“The ‘radio quiet’ results that the ICRAR-designed SMART boxes achieved were to the highest standards in radio astronomy. A mobile phone on the surface of the moon would cause more interference to the antennas than the SMART boxes that sit among them,” said Booler. 

The company AVI, based in Perth, was recently awarded a contract to manufacture as many as 12,000 SMART boxes to be used for the complete outfitting of the SKA-Low telescope. 

These compact yet powerful units will power the telescope's 131,072 antennas as well as collect incoming radio signals for further processing.

The Square Kilometre Array project

Construction of these two huge telescopes started in December 2022.  

Australia’s SKA-Low will conduct observations at lower frequencies using a network of 512 radio antenna stations distributed across a vast expanse of 74 kilometers. This telescope is located within Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara of the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. 

The low-frequency range (from 50 megahertz (MHz) to 350 MHz) allows astronomers to study a wide variety of celestial phenomena, including the early universe, cosmic microwave background radiation, pulsars, and more.

The South African counterpart based in the Karoo region, known as SKA-Mid, will employ a collection of 197 radio dishes to study radio waves in the middle-frequency range, ranging from 350 MHz to beyond 15 GHz.

Both telescopes are expected to be completely operational by the end of this decade.

Altogether, these two powerful telescopes will enable scientists to gaze into the past, all the way back to the cosmic dawn when the first stars and galaxies came into existence. 

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