4 mins read 26 Nov 2020

ASKAP Gets a Digital Twin

CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder has been given the digital treatment to produce a virtual version of the site using state-of-the-art technology.

ASKAP’s digital twin. Credit: CSIRO Data61.

Located in the outback region of central Western Australia, the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) is not easily accessible to most Australians, partly because of its location, but also because some of the most sensitive telescopes in the world are located in this designated radio quiet zone. This observatory is home to the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), one of Australia’s largest radio astronomy instruments, managed by the national science agency, CSIRO. Now, Data61 and CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science (CASS) division have collaborated to create a digital twin of ASKAP so global users can visualise the site from the comfort of their digital devices.


ASKAP radio telescope. Credit: CSIRO.

ASKAP is located 800 kilometres north of Perth on the land of the Wajarri Yamaji people, the traditional landowners of the area, and is a telescope array consisting of 36 dish antennas, each 12 meters in diameter. Each antenna is fitted with a unique CSIRO-designed phased array feed (PAF) receiver and is sensitive to radio waves coming from deep space within the range of 700 to 1800 megahertz. The telescope became operational in February 2019 and has since been used for several notable works of science, including recently weighing the missing baryonic matter in the Universe.   

Located at the MRO, the ASKAP is one of three world-class telescopes currently on-site. The other two telescopes on-site are the Murchison Wide-field Array (MWA), and the Experiment to Detect the Global Epoch of Reionization Signature (EDGES). 

The fourth telescope to be built at Murchison is the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). ASKAP is a technological demonstrator of the SKA, an international project to build the world’s largest telescope that will have a collecting area of one square kilometre. The telescope will be co-hosted by the Karoo region in South Africa, and the Murchison Observatory in Western Australia. Eventually, thousands of low-frequency antennas will be located at the Australian site for the SKA. 

Digitising ASKAP

ASKAP’s digital twin. Credit: CSIRO Data61.

Creating a digital twin of ASKAP allows users to visualise the telescope using a virtual or augmented reality app on their smartphone, a head-mounted display, a virtual reality system such as EPICylinder, and eventually an online web platform. A digital twin is a replica of a physical object incorporated with data gathered or streamed in real-time. For ASKAP this means that it can display telescope monitoring data, such as changes to antenna orientation and their digital back-end hardware.  

“The project itself pushed the limits of computer graphics techniques, simulation, and modelling to not only to deliver amazingly realistic replicas of the Australian landscape but also enable the realistic positioning of the galaxies and celestial objects ASKAP is studying,” explains Dr Tomasz Bednarz, Team Leader of the Visual Analytics Group at Data61 and Epicentre’s director. “The user can set up a time to the hour, say 45 years from now, and the ASKAP digital twin will display an accurate visualisation of how the sky will look at that exact moment, based on current knowledge.”  

“At the moment, this project is a demonstrator of digital twin capabilities, such as replaying pre-recorded historical data, but we’re planning to extend it for full tele-monitoring in real-time,” says Dr Bednarz. “For example, weather impact information (rain, wind, sun, etc) could overlay the current visualisation. Observations could include temperature, humidity, visibility of sky, clouds, wind speed and direction, radio signals and more.” 

This digital twin will allow researchers to interact remotely with ASKAP, important in preserving the radio-silence necessary for the telescope’s operation during observations, whilst being highly useful in unique situations such as the current pandemic. acknowledge the Wajarri Yamatji people as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site.