Stratodynamics looks to help calibrate the Square Kilometre Array

Hundreds of thousands and eventually up to a million low-frequency antennas will be located in Western Australia. Credit: SKA.

Stratodynamics is trying to expand its customer base with the announcement last week it had entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Square Kilometre Array organization.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the largest radio telescope when it’s completed. The SKA is imagined of having “thousands of dishes and up to a million low-frequency antennas that will enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and survey the entire sky much faster than any system currently in existence.” The telescope is being built in Western Australia and South Africa.

For Stratodynamics, the MOU, which it is hoped will lead to a contract, allows them to expand their customer base beyond its initial Earth Observation research using Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flight capabilities it’s been doing under contract with the Canadian Space Agency, and working with the University of Kentucky as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.

Artist illustration of the Stratodynamics HiDRON flying over the Western Australia Square Kilometre Array to help calibrate the telescope.
Artist illustration of the Stratodynamics HiDRON flying over the Western Australia Square Kilometre Array to help calibrate the telescope. Credit: Stratodynamics.

The company has developed HiDRON, a small glider loaded with sensors that works at high altitudes. Late last summer HiDRON set a number of Canadian records during a test flight including the highest altitude flight of a UAV or Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), the first UAV above 29,000 feet in Class A airspace, and the first release of a UAV from a scientific gondola in Canada.

The MOU with SKA would see Stratodynamics use the HiDRON glider for in-situ measurements of SKA in Western Australia to help calibrate the telescope. Specifically the HiDRON glider will act as a “calibration platform for repeated exercises from the edge of the stratosphere and is designed to validate the electromagnetic numerical models being used to predict the antennas’ behaviour in the field.”

Stratodynamics CEO Gary Pundsack told SpaceQ in an interview that using HiDRON was a good fit for what SKA’s calibration needs. “They need to calibrate their large telescope on the ground, and we’ve got something that can work for them from high altitude. We’ve specialized in really high altitude studies and the advantage of our platform for their application is we can fly the HiDRON directly above the array.”

By being able to fly the HiDRON directly above the array Pundsack said “they can calibrate both what they call far and near field for the radio telescope.” HiDROn would begin collecting data at about 25 km and down to 18 km.

HiDRON set for a test flight.
HiDRON set for a test flight. Credit: Stratodynamics.

The Western Australia portion of the telescope is expected to begin operation in the mid-2020’s. The South Africa telescope construction will follow.

Pundsack said they reached out to SKA about a year ago to see if they could offer their services.

For the project to move from the MOU phase to a contract, SKA would need to “get some internal approvals to use this as a method,” along with funding. Telescope construction in Western Australia has started.

Dr. Mark Waterson, Engineering Domain Specialist with SKA said that they “look forward to exploring the improvements in accuracy that the Stratodynamics’ airborne platform can provide to our calibration measurements.”

Another factor affecting the timing of when the project might go forward is the COVID-19 pandemic. Pundsack they are potentially scheduling the program for later this year, but that it could be pushed into 2021.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive Inc. Boucher has 20 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 28 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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