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April 3, 2012

Astronomers Look to Exascale Computing to Uncover Mysteries of the Universe

Robert Gelber

Plans are currently underway for development of the world’s most powerful radio telescope. The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) will consist of roughly 3,000 antennae located in Southern Africa or Australia; its final location may be decided later this month. The heart of this system, however, will include one of the world’s fastest supercomputers. 

The array is quite demanding of both data storage and processing power. It is expected to generate an exabyte of data per day and require a multi-exaflops supercomputer to process it. Rebecca Boyle of Popsci wrote an article about the telescope’s computing demands, estimating that such a machine would have to deliver between two to thirty exaflops.

Currently, the fastest computer on the Top500 list, the Japanese K computer, can perform 10.51 petaflops on Linpack. To reach the minimum estimated compute requirement for the SKA, a system would need to perform nearly 285 times faster than that system. For such a supercomputer to exist, substantial advancements in both processing power and reductions in power consumption will be required.

There is still time to develop this technology, as the SKA is not expected to begin operation until 2024. Most experts estimate the exascale barrier to be broken before that time. It’s with this focus that IBM and ASTRON, a Netherlands-based radio astronomy institute, have partnered up in a five-year 32.9 million Euro project to develop a system capable of supporting the SKA.  The collaboration is named DOME, after the cover for telescopes and the Swiss mountain.

Research will take place at the new ASTRON & IBM Center for Exascale Technology in Drenthe, the Netherlands. Some of the technologies that will be researched there include 3D stacked chips, advanced accelerators, optical interconnects and nanophotonics. Marco de Vos, Managing Director of ASTRON described how answering challenges presented by the SKA would lead to greener technology:

“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. DOME gives us unique opportunities to try out new approaches in Green Supercomputing. This will be beneficial for society at large as well.”

Since the SKA is in still in the planning phases, researchers at the exascale facility will test their designs on the existing low-frequency array (LOFAR). LOFAR was built by ASTRON and uses some of the same technology that will be incorporated into the SKA.


The technical requirements for the SKA are certainly challenging from a computational point of view. Research and development for the project will most likely generate advancements in low-power computing and storage technologies that will have applications in supercomputers around the world. Beyond requiring new innovations in computing, this will be the most powerful telescope of its kind ever developed.