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Taking SKA to the Skies

TCS collaborates with NCRA-TIFR to design the control system for the world’s largest radio telescope


In October 2017, scientists across the world were thrilled at the discovery of a brand new heavenly body hurtling through the night sky. Since named 'Oumuamua , this extraterrestrial object had travelled light years from its place of origin – it doesn’t even belong to our solar system. Almost a year later, researchers seem to have reached an agreement about what it could be and where it is from – well, just about.

To explore the origins (and journeys) of interstellar objects like 'Oumuamua, Indian research organization National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), is collaborating with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and a consortium of global agencies to set up the world’s largest radio telescope, called the square kilometer array (SKA).

Spread Far and Wide

The telescope gets its name from the approximately one square kilometer collecting area it will boast of once fully operational. Featuring two sets of instruments – in Australia and South Africa – SKA will be run from the project headquarters in the UK. NCRA-TIFR lead an international consortium that is developing this telescope set’s central nervous system – the control systems that will power it.

Having designed the control systems architecture for the international thermonuclear experimental reactor (ITER), a TCS Research and Innovation (R&I) team partnered with NCRA-TIFR to create a control systems solution for SKA. This solution would need to minimize the lifecycle costs associated with the continual technological development, testing, and validation that will occur over the telescope’s working life (roughly, 50-odd years). Aiding the R&I group in implementing the solution design was a TCS Engineering and Industrial Services (EIS) team.

SKA is a highly complex instrument made up of thousands of receivers that capture and process signals in different observational modes, churning out petabytes of data. For large systems, it is still extremely challenging to achieve accuracy and consistency in capturing the interactions of every component. Plus, the ideal control systems solution would also need to be able to manage the receivers at both locations, even though they differed both in terms of hardware and control paradigms.

The R&I team addressed these challenges in a twofold manner. First, it developed a domain-specific language for specifying the control systems logic. Then, it designed a complete environment for engineering solutions that would significantly automate the entire lifecycle, including modelling, code generation, knowledge-driven simulation, and verification.

Automating the Control Systems Architecture

Manual development and evolution of control systems solutions results in low agility due to latency and the high effort cost involved to introduce improvements to the solution. In modern instruments, it is the control software that integrates subsystems to deliver overall instrument capabilities. What this means is that the instrument – in this case, the telescope – cannot take advantage of technological improvements until the control systems software itself has been rewritten and verified.

TCS addressed this challenge by enabling domain engineers to view and update the control systems logic using intuitive domain-specific languages. To ensure the accuracy of changes and instrument reliability, the development environment provides automated generation of simulation and test environments based on the updated systems model. This means that changes to the control systems can be implemented, verified, and deployed in an agile manner. 

In addition to the management system that runs the telescope, TCS also defined a standard control interface between SKA and its subsystems, each of which is diverse in its functionality. This work has led to the adoption of a common project-wide control platform, standard design patterns, and a consistent control systems architecture by the telescope consortium. With this strong and stable central nervous system powering it, SKA will soon be gazing upon the skies.  

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