May 30, 2012

Two Countries to Host Square Kilometre Array

Robert Gelber

After much speculation, the International Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Organization has decided that the future radio telescope will reside in two countries. Computerworld Australia has reported that both South Africa and Australia will play host to the system.   

The Square Kilometer Array was originally proposed in 1991 as a radio telescope system to help astronomers understand mysteries of the Universe. True to its name, the dish receptors will have an aggregate collecting area of approximately one square kilometer. Because of its size and its ability to operate over a wide range of frequencies, it will be about 50 times more sensitive than any radio telescope ever built. Three to four years of design and planning are expected before construction of the array takes place.

SKA will also entail the use of high performance computing to ingest and process the enormous amounts of data that the will be produced. Researchers predict the system will generate an exabyte of data daily, requiring a multi-exaflop supercomputer to process information gathered from the thousands of dishes and sensors.

The exascale era is more than five years away by most estimates. This has prompted the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) and IBM to join in a 5-year research project aimed at developing technology leading to exascale computing. The project, known as DOME, will focus on 3D stacked chips, optical interconnects, and computational accelerators.

The recent decision to split resources between two continents will also change current design plans, affecting vendors like DataDirect Networks, which has partnered with the International Center for Astronomy Research (ICRAR) to develop a suitable data storage infrastructure. 

Both Australia and South Africa have demonstrated their ability to house the new system with existing radio telescope installations. South Africa is home to MeerKAT, a prototype array consisting of 7 fiberglass dishes. Completed in 2010, the system has already taken images of the Centaurus A galaxy, 14 million light years away. In Western Australia, the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) is currently undergoing construction, including devices that may be integrated into the final SKA telescope

The new plans expect South Africa’s portion of the system to study gravity and capture detailed images. Meanwhile, Australia’s team will spend their time studying properties of the Universe, including dark matter and dark energy.

A greater number of dishes will be installed in South Africa since that system has to capture weaker signals from galaxies far away. This will include all-sky receivers, collecting data in the 200 to 500MHz frequency ranges. Australia will be using wide-field receivers, which will be used to survey hundreds of millions of galaxies.

Estimates have the system becoming fully operational by the mid-2020’s, at which point, it is expected to see as far as 13 million light years into the Universe. Together, the SKA telescope, hosted by South Africa and Australia, should help answer a wide range of questions surrounding the nature of the Universe and its origins.

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