Missing the (SKA) bus

04 Jul, 2019
Missing the (SKA) bus

The just-released report, From the Knowledge Wave to the Digital Age is about New Zealand meeting the challenges of its digital future. And yet, on the same day it was launched, we learned that New Zealand will now disengage from the biggest supercomputing project on the planet – the SKA – where we have been a highly-valued contributor. It’s a curious call.

There are two key aspects to the massive SKA project: designing the radio telescopes, which will generate unbelievable volumes of data; and designing the computing systems to cope with it.

The NZ SKA Alliance (Auckland University of Technology, Catalyst, Compucon, Massey University, Open Parallel, and University of Auckland) is the largest software team in the SKA, with the broadest range of international collaborations in the project. They have been working on the design and prototyping of ultra-high-speed data processing and analytics. Developing these skills in New Zealand has obvious downstream economic benefits in this digital age and that is why those who understand this have pushed hard to retain these benefits. MBIE says this work is now largely done when, in fact, there will be ongoing upgrades of computing systems, algorithms and software for many years. The team’s skills could be applied during the construction, testing and operation phases of SKA.

The SKA is the first and only massive multinational scientific project in which New Zealand has had lead roles. No current or proposed ICT project comes close to the SKA in scale and opportunity. Its big data demands so greatly exceed those of any other project that the SKA will lead the global development of big data science for years to come. Yet, MBIE has advised the Government that continuing with the SKA is not a good idea. They had earlier proposed the notion of pursuing a yet-to-be-defined “associate” membership. The Alliance told them it was unlikely to succeed and it seems they now agree, because what they had initially described as an “elegant solution” has quietly dropped off the table.

Certainly, the SKA Organisation is sad to see New Zealand go. As Prof. Phil Diamond, the SKA Organisation’s Director-General said, “Their expertise in computing, and signal processing in particular, helped us develop a solid design for the SKA’s digital and computing infrastructure. The SKA partnership stands ready to welcome New Zealand back, should the situation change.”

As it happens, while New Zealand disengages from the computing side that Prof Diamond refers to, our radio astronomers remain fully involved in the SKA – some as full members of the SKA Science Working Groups, advising the design and construction teams. This is ironic, given the claims that radio astronomy is too small in this country to justify ongoing involvement. Their work does not hinge on the Government signing up for the next development stage. And AUT’s radio telescopes at Warkworth are considered part of the wider SKA, when used in VLBI[1] mode. So, New Zealand is still directly involved in the SKA, but it’s only the radio astronomers now.

The opening line of the From the Knowledge Wave to the Digital Age report reads, “What is our place in an increasingly digitised world …?”

What indeed?

1 VLBI (Very-long-baseline interferometry) is a radio astronomy technique where a signal from an astronomical radio source is collected at multiple radio telescopes on Earth. This allows observations made simultaneously by many radio telescopes to be combined, emulating a virtual telescope with a size equal to the maximum separation between the telescopes.