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Searching the stars with the largest multi-radio telescope ever built

24 April 2018

CPI is collaborating with the University of Malta and Printed Electronics Ltd to help develop the largest multi-radio telescope ever built.

The late Stephen Hawking, an icon of both the scientific and human spirit, once gave this inspiring advice during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Paralympics:

"Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious."
Professor Stephen Hawking

While there’s certainly no shortage of inspirational quotes worthy of a scientists’ kitchen canvas, this one perhaps best acts as a recipe for the perfect scientific mind-set. It emphasises the attitudes of research, scrutiny, and most importantly, curiosity. And although the great physicist sadly can no longer depart such wisdom to us, there is one global, astronomical project that embodies his words like no other: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, the largest science facility ever to be built, and one that CPI has gladly lent its expertise to.

Making Waves

In 2018, construction will begin on ten million radio antennae spread across the deserts of Australia, South Africa, Botswana and seven other African countries. From its headquarters in Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester in the UK, the SKA organisation will then monitor the collected data from this immense collection of scanners. Why? Well, just like Professor Hawking said, to try and make sense of what we see. The array will further probe the effects of spacetime, map the observable universe, and even search for extra-terrestrial life!

Of course, it would be wrong for such a Herculean mission to belong to one nation, and so the project is rightly one of the biggest international scientific collaborations ever attempted. A core consortium of ten countries, with the assistance of over 100 institutions from across twenty countries, will help build the telescope over the next seven years.

Discovering the unknown: the world's largest radio telescope

The Fine Print

It is one of these very institutions, the University of Malta, which reached out to CPI for assistance. Together with other universities and institutions, they were assigned the task of designing and prototyping an advanced instrumentation programme that will be able to process the colossal data the antennae will collect. This Mid-Frequency Aperture Array (MFAA) will, therefore, require a vast amount of advanced processing circuits - it is surveying the entire universe after all! And, not only that, but these circuits also needed to be flexible enough to squeeze into the university’s flat array design.

Antenna being printed and stored

Luckily, CPI’s printable electronics capabilities are specifically suited to items that need to be produced in flexible, large format. So, to the specifications of the University of Malta, and with the expert assistance of the aptly named Printed Electronics Ltd (PEL), CPI manufactured and rolled out the printed electronics needed for MFAA sheets.

“CPI has extensive experiences in the development and scale up of printed electronics based applications. We can help companies move from lab scale processing right through to pre manufacturing volumes, and our core expertise relies in the field of printable electronics. The technology offers a key solution for further scale up to mass volumes”.

Steven Bagshaw, Business Development Manager at CPI

CPI helps to construct world's largest radio telescope

Developing the specific processing parameters was challenging, but CPI still managed to deliver the antenna array to the University of Malta in late 2017, which the university used to build a prototype 100m2 antenna array on their grounds. And it didn’t disappoint. The unit managed to successfully read electromagnetic performance of tightly coupled dense arrays, as well calculate the complex simulations needed to send this information away to be analysed. So after this success, the next step is to present this high-grade telescope to the SKA organisation as a candidate antenna for the MFAA.

At CPI we are proud to have been involved in such a monumental, global project. Thanks to our infrastructure in printed electronics, we were able to successfully and productively collaborate with PEL and the University of Malta and help this ground-breaking endeavour move one step closer to the stars. We wish our partners at the University of Malta the best of luck in securing the MFAA project with the SKA organisation. Fingers crossed!

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