IBM £26.6m Exascale Project To Power World’s Largest Radio Telescope

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The Square Kilometre Array will process twice the amount of data generated on the Internet every day

IBM has revealed it will help build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – the world’s largest radio telescope, which is due to be finished in 2024.

The company announced the initial five-year, €32 million (£26.6m) exascale computing project called DOME in partnership with the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) yesterday.

It will be based at the newly-established ASTRON & IBM Centre for Exascale Technology in Drenthe, Netherlands.

Big Bang data

SKA is an extremely powerful survey telescope which will have millions of antennas to gather radio signals, forming a collection area equivalent to one square kilometre, but spanning a huge surface area – over 3000 kilometres (1864 miles) wide. It will be 50 times more sensitive than any previous radio device and more than 10,000 times faster than today’s instruments.

Astronomers will use this power to study signals that were produced more than 13 billion years ago in the Big Bang. The collected radio signals are expected to generate one exabyte of raw data daily, two times the amount of information that is created on the Internet every day.

The DOME project will provide the technologies that will be needed in 12 years to collect, store and analyse all of this data.

“This is Big Data Analytics to the extreme. With DOME, we will embark on one of the most data-intensive science projects ever planned, which will eventually have much broader applications beyond radio astronomy research,” explained Ton Engbersen from IBM Research.

The impact of the project will not be limited to just Big Data computing, but also sustainability and power conservation, according to the organisers. “Large research infrastructures like the SKA require extremely powerful computer systems to process all the data. The only acceptable way to build and operate these systems is to dramatically reduce their power consumption,” said Marco de Vos, managing director of ASTRON.

“DOME gives us unique opportunities to try out new approaches in green supercomputing. This will be beneficial for society at large as well,” he added.

At the core of DOME will be the analysis of the existing system for the low-frequency array (LOFAR), designed and built by ASTRON using IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputers.

At this point, it has not yet been decided where SKA will be located. Two possible solutions are to build the telescope in either South Africa, or Australia and New Zealand. The final decision is expected this year.

IBM is no stranger to the space industry. The company has taken part in every US manned space effort in history, working on systems for Mercury, Gemini-Titan and Apollo-Saturn missions, and for the historic 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.

You can find more information about SKA and IBM involvement in the video below:

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