Six Years of Success
2022 is an exceptional Milestone for AEON, as we mark six years of working on the Square Kilometre Array project.
Since 2016, AEON has been involved with the SKA project, initially supporting the University of Manchester as the Systems Engineering Authority for the Signal and Data Transport Consortium, through to providing specialist Product Assurance and Reliability, Availability, Maintainability and Safety advice as the Project has moved from design to construction.
What is the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)?
The SKA project is an international effort to build the world’s largest and most sensitive networks of radio telescopes, led by the SKA Observatory (SKAO) with its headquarters based at the historical Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester, a stone throw away from the AEON headquarters in Staffordshire.
A truly international Project, comprising industry and academia from across Europe, Asia, Australia, North America and Africa, established to deliver a technically advanced telescope, the like of which has never been seen before.
The SKA itself is not a single telescope, but a collection of telescopes or collecting instruments called arrays, located in Australia and South Africa. In addition to being geographically distributed across three host countries, several other nations are providing technical input and financial contributions in return for construction contracts and scientific access to the telescopes.
The ambition of the SKA project is to solve some of the biggest questions in the field of astronomy. The scale of the SKA project, as well as the sensitivity of its telescopes will give astronomers insight into the formation and evolution of the first stars and galaxies, the role of cosmic magnetism, the nature of gravity, and possibly even life beyond Earth.
AEON meets SKAO
In 2016 AEON was awarded the Systems Engineering contract for the Signal and Data Transport (SaDT) consortium. SaDT is the backbone of the SKA project; it is responsible for the three data transport networks that take information from the telescopes to the Processor (Digital Data Backhaul – DDBH), from the Central Signal Processor to the Science Data Processor, out from there to the SKA Regional Data Centres for Analysis. This consortium also designed the timescale and bespoke clock and frequency distribution system.
This work exposed the AEON team to all areas of the project. Liaisons were needed with the Dish consortium regarding their designs, in-depth analysis of the infrastructure requirements at the hot and dry sites South African and Australian sites were needed to ensure that the SaDT could perform in these extreme conditions. The team needed to fully understand the requirements from all other systems that constituted the SKA instrument, to ensure that the design and specification of the SaDT network could deliver.
The scale of this task gave rise to the famous saying “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” (Bruce Wallis)
Working in this consortium saw AEON develop extensive engineering requirements that were needed to deliver a project of this size. Over several years, AEON formed close, effective working relationships both within the consortium and the wider project. It was a great success for the SaDT consortium to pass the Critical Design Review in 2018 with flying colours.
The next step was construction.
As the SKA project progressed from design to real life; AEON remained firmly at the heart of the operation. In 2019, AEON was the first commercial organisation to contract directly with the then SKA Organisation via their newly implemented NEC4 procurement process.
To complement the continuing Systems Engineering support, AEON Technical Director, Rob Gabrielczyk headed up a team to establish the Product Assurance framework to assist in assuring the success of the SKAO’s mission.
In 2021 the SKA Organisation transitioned into an intergovernmental organisation (IGO) dedicated to radio astronomy and called the SKA Observatory
An Intergovernmental Organisation refers to an entity created by treaty, involving two or more nations, to work in good faith, on issues of common interest. In this case, the treaty was an agreement between an initial seven countries (including the UK).
“This is a historic moment for radio astronomy,” said Dr Catherine Cesarsky, appointed first Chair of the SKAO Council. “…There are countries that had the vision to get deeply involved because they saw the wider benefits their participation in SKAO could bring to build an ecosystem of science and technology involving fundamental research, computing, engineering, and skills for the next generation, which are essential in a 21st century digital economy.”
Building the right system, and building the system right
AEON’s heritage is in delivering Space projects where there are critical timescales and requirements needed for success. Through extensive knowledge and experience gained in the Space sector, AEON were able to create a bespoke Product Assurance governance system to assist the Head of Assurance, Tim Stevenson, in the delivery and operation of the SKA telescopes.
Product Assurance (PA) practice is to ensure that products and systems being developed accomplish their defined objectives in a safe, available, and reliable way, minimising wastage, re-work, re-design and re-manufacture.
Given the size, and complicated nature of this project, the PA governance is crucial to the realisation of effective telescopes. AEON’s unique knowledge of both Space standard PA practice, and intimate knowledge of the working systems of the SKA project, ensured that the framework took into account the necessary safeguards but not at the expense of cost logistics or performance of the system.
Head of Assurance Tim Stevenson says: “AEON are a rare example of an SME organisation who understands the particular needs of a Research Infrastructure enterprise such as an Observatory. These include the tailored engineering disciplines of Systems Engineering and Product Assurance. AEON’s understanding was critical to the work they carried out for us.”
Success in this area resulted in further contract awards in Health and Safety, including the generation and implementation of high-level documents and systems alongside the Head of HSSE John Kerr.
The “Safety in Design” activities were a series of workshops chaired by John Kerr and attended by the Telescope Delivery Teams. The purpose of the workshops was two-fold; firstly, to directly promote the need for engineers to consider aspects of safety during the design phase, and secondly, to assist in the identification of scenarios and use-cases where existing designs may pose a hazard or a safety concern. By performing these workshops, AEON were able to increase the organisation’s awareness of the H&S management function and to reinforce the need for responsible design that works cohesively with the SKAO’s health and safety policies.
Virtual Systems Engineering
The SKA instrument is one of the most complex science and data processing projects ever conceived. Spanning 16 countries, with hundreds of people working together across all different time zones. A project of this size has its complications, and that’s on top of the time difference and language barriers.
Throughout 2020, 2021 and 2022 AEON continued to provide systems engineering support to the SKA project, drawing on extensive knowledge of the project to assist in the aggregation, consolidation and unification of interfaces. Face to face meetings, and coffee breakouts turned to zoom meetings and JAMA workshops. However, despite the global pandemic, AEON grew the team by 5 members, which enabled them to move into a bigger Head Quarters and open a second office in Oxford. Fantastic relationships have been made with the ever-growing SKAO team.
Not only discussing the intricacies of systems engineering, the AEON team have been able to provide vital insight to new members of the SKAO team, regarding the heritage of the systems, the areas of risk but also opportunity. Through close relationships created from the SaDT era, AEON carry through detailed knowledge of the syntonisation and timing, architecture and requirements of the telescope required to deliver the science mission.
“The SKAO system engineers chose AEON to expertly lay the groundwork for us,” said Marco Caiazzo, Head of Systems Engineering and Deputy Head of Engineering at the SKAO. “Their team has been essential in delivering the technical specification and interfaces for the procurement data packs.”
This crucial work has ensured that the SKAO was on track to place commercial contracts for the building and operation of the telescopes after the SKAO Council officially approved the start of construction in summer 2021. This signalled the start of a ten-year build programme in the construction of the two telescopes and the associated operations and business-enabling functions internationally.
Six Years Onwards
2022 will see the awarding of more commercial contracts to deliver the SKA telescopes. As many of the original consortia moved on to new ventures, and the SKAO continues to grow with new international talent, AEON remain at the centre of the delivery of this telescope.
The SKA project itself has challenges to face; space is becoming more accessible to all and with that comes increased traffic and distortion that will affect the efficacy of radio astronomy globally. The United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) will continue deliberating the protection of dark and quiet skies, its goal is to ensure that astronomers (and more generally citizens of the world) can continue to explore the wonders of the night sky without the light and radio pollution human activities create on the ground and from space.
With unrivalled knowledge of the workings of the SKA project, from the initial concept designs, through to the detailed requirements, test plans and interfaces of each complex area, AEON are in a unique position for a commercial enterprise. Looking to the future, AEON will continue to work closely with the SKAO to meet the new challenges that face this astronomical project; and ensure the delivery of its mission.
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