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Radio astronomy telescope to see distant past

Posted: 16 Jan 2007     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:IBM  LNA  low-noise amplifier  Astron  Skads 

IBM Corp. will collaborate with Dutch researchers to produce chips for a radio astronomy telescope that's preparing to peek billions of years into the past. And the designers from IBM and the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy, known as Astron, only have a few months to complete the task.

Astron's Skads/Embrace prototype telescope project needs two analogue chips: an LNA that will boost the signal received by each antenna and a beam-forming IC to process multiple analogue streams from each LNA, do phase shifting and amplification, and ensure that the antenna can be steered to a desired portion of the sky. The Skads/Embrace scope, planned for a distributed site between the northern Netherlands and France, will be a scaled prototype of a project called the Square Kilometer Array (SKA).

IBM will develop the LNA and beam-forming processor. Jan Blommaart, an IBM consultant working with Astron, said the beam-forming chip draws on concepts similar to those in synthetic-aperture radar and some smart-antenna designs for WLANs. But the frequency window and power dissipation will make the SiGe chips unique to the telescope application.

SKA will build on radio interferometry concepts developed in two U.S. projects to upgrade radio astronomy from the days of single-dish antennas. The Very Large Array near Socorro, New Mexico, and the Very Long Baseline Array, a global project centred in nearly Pie Town, New Mexico, were so successful that 11 nations agreed to sponsor SKA.

The powerful SKA telescope will comprise thousands of discrete antennas, jointly forming a 1km2 collecting area and individually dispersed over an area as large as the continental United States. Centred in either Australia or South Africa, they will be able to peer back into space and time to the early eras of the universe, more than 1.3 crore years in the past, including the "dark ages" before visible stars formed.

The Skads/Embrace prototype is one of several demonstration models of Skads (for Square Kilometer Array design studies) being developed by European members of the 11-nation SKA consortium. Embrace will be based on arrays of flat-panel tiles, each containing dozens of antennas, each with its own SiGe low-noise amp. The cascading antennas on the tile will have one beam-forming chip for every cluster of 16 or 64 antennas. The results of data collection from flat tiles will be given to the SKA consortium to help in choosing the type of antenna for the full project.

The LNA and beam-forming processor will be based on IBM's 8HP 0.13µm SiGe process to integrate RF circuits directly on the tiles. Blommaart said that the newest generation of SiGe was the first that could be considered for the project, because of its low noise. Previous generations met frequency and power dissipation constraints, "but the Skads/Embrace design calls for very low noise, which could only be met with the fifth generation."

If the processing and materials costs for each antenna node can be reduced, the SKA could grow from Skads/Embrace's 25,000 antennas to as many as 10 crore antennas in a full SKA. The full SKA is not expected to be completed until 2020.

- Loring Wirbel
EE Times

Richard Goering contributed to this story.

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