Swiss tech helping uncover the origins of the universe

With its secretariat hosted at EPFL, the Square Kilometer Array Switzerland (SKACH) consortium is celebrating two years’ membership of a global project to develop the largest scientific facility ever built by humankind.
Artist impression SKA at night © 2024 SKAO

In January 2022 Switzerland officially joined a great adventure – the Square Kilometer Array Observatory (SKAO), an international organization building the world’s biggest radio telescope to unlock some of the greatest mysteries of the universe.

Currently under construction, by the end of the decade there will be hundreds of dishes in South Africa at the mid-frequency range and more than 130-thousand low-frequency antennas erected in Australia. This next-generation radio astronomy facility will look as far back as the Cosmic Dawn, when the very first stars and galaxies formed, tackling some of the most fundamental scientific questions of our time and, with an expected operational phase of at least 50 years, it will be one of the cornerstone physics machines of the 21st century.

A collaborative global project with sixteen countries currently taking part, the Swiss SKACH consortium is made up of ten Swiss academic institutions working on five key programs: Science, Data Science, Computing Platforms and Infrastructure, Instrumentation, and Education and Public Outreach.

“Within the SKAO global organization the structure of SKACH is unique,” explained Carolyn Crichton, SKACH Consortium Director. “We are a multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary team and this is part of our magic, part of the reason we’ve contributed so much to the global effort in a relatively short space of time.”

Switzerland has committed more than 33-million CHF to 2030 towards the construction and early operation of the Array, which will collect unprecedented amounts of data, requiring the world’s fastest supercomputers to process this in near real time. Swiss researchers will be fundamental in this work processing around ~650 PBytes/year in areas such as cosmology, dark energy and astrobiology.

Much of this will happen at a planned Swiss SKAO Regional Centre for data distribution and analysis at the Swiss National Supercomputing Center (CSCS), providing an integrated infrastructure to provide data access and analytical tools accessible to the international community. SKACH computer scientists are working directly with astrophysicists to create scalable simulations, novel imaging techniques, automated scheduling, eco-computing, and HPC capabilities using research in both artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Indeed, SKACH scientists were recently awarded the largest ever allocation of node hours on Europe’s LUMI-G supercomputer to conduct a simulation looking at the role of turbulence and gravity in the universe. This simulation experiment is helping to drive the development of programing codes, enhanced by High-Performance Computing and machine learning techniques, to handle large data streams such as the SKAO will collect.

“It’s exciting for Switzerland to be part of the biggest global radio astronomy effort yet, seeking answers to some of the biggest remaining mysteries in astrophysics including the cosmological model, galaxy evolution, cosmic magnetism and the origins of life,” explained EPFL Professor Jean-Paul Kneib, who is also the Swiss Scientific Delegate to the SKAO Council. “We’re working with telescope arrays that are far more sensitive and up to 130 times faster than the current best radio telescopes at equivalent frequencies.”

«It’s exciting for Switzerland to be part of the biggest global radio astronomy effort yet, seeking answers to some of the biggest remaining mysteries in astrophysics.»      EPFL Professor Jean-Paul Kneib, Swiss Scientific Delegate to the SKAO Council

On behalf of the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI), SKACH has already formed partnerships between academic, industrial and technical partners to provide expertise in the development of advanced receivers for dish antennas, precision timing, automation, signal processing and Big Data.

In 2022, the Swiss company Cosylab, a leading provider of control systems for some of the world’s most complex projects including the particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva, joined other developers working on the SKA telescopes’ Observatory Management Control software.

Another Swiss success story is the delivery of state-of-the-art-atomic clocks made by the Neuchatel division of Safran Electronics & Defense, formally the Neuchatel Observatory. The telescope arrays need ultra-stable clocks called hydrogen MASERS, with the times they produce continuously compared with one another to identify failures as well as being compared via satellite with UTC time kept by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures.

The SKAO has purchased four units of the iM3000, SAFRAN Active Hydrogen MASER – high-performance MASERS integrating intelligent functionality with a field lifetime of more than 30 years; maser clocks deployed since 1982 have been found to still be working perfectly today.

“We are very proud of our clocks and our partnership with SKAO. Our first customers were in radio astronomy more than 40 years ago and making clocks for this application is one of our key aims. It’s exciting that our clocks are being used for such an amazing project and that the status of Switzerland is recognized in such a high-precision, technical field,” said Gilles Cibiel-Mahiout, Product Manager, Science and Meteorology Department at Safran Electronics & Defense.

One Swiss MASER will be deployed in South Africa and three will be shipped to Australia where both facilities will have a dedicated MASER room for the clocks to reside.

“From academia to business, SKACH is ensuring that Switzerland is punching above its weight in this extraordinary international endeavor and through SKACH, EPFL is helping to create a truly national, multi-disciplinary hub for space research. I look forward to seeing what the next decade of this project brings, especially for young scientists because our participation in the SKA Observatory is an opportunity to gain access to exclusive SKA data and to work in a truly global collaboration,” concluded Professor Kneib.

How EPFL is part of this exciting global project

The Center for Imaging has worked on the development of a new imaging algorithm for radio-astronomy while the interdisciplinary LASTRO/SCITAS radio-astronomy group is leading on a 21cm cosmology research project developing new data reduction and analysis techniques with the next-generation of radio astronomy instruments.

EPFL researchers are part of a SKA Co-design team responsible for the hardware design of the SKA Science Processing Center. The team is evaluating ideal software/hardware pairs to maximise data throughput and minimize the power consumption of SKA data analysis workflows and support energy efficiency.

Recently, SKACH data scientists, led by EPFL’s Laboratory of Astrophysics (LASTRO) earned a top 10 position in a global Data Science Challenge in which they analyzed simulated astronomical data going back billions of years through cosmic time. The challenge was part of a series of tests to prepare the radio-astronomical community for dealing with the huge data sets expected from SKA-Low, the telescope located in the west of Australia, once it’s up and running, as well as to assess the most effective ways to process them.