Supercomputing Fundamental to SKA Project

By Tiffany Trader

December 12, 2013

First proposed in 1991, the Square-Kilometer Array (SKA) project seeks to build and operate the largest radio telescope in the world to peer into the deepest recesses of the cosmos. Instead of seeing light waves, the SKA telescope will turn radio waves into images. The array will be 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument and will require extremely high performance computing to process and analyze its data.

Over at the Cray blog, Bill Boas, Director of Business Development for SKA at Cray, discusses the project’s goals and addresses the computational demands of such an undertaking.

Radio astronomy works because cosmic bodies like stars emit radio waves. As opposed to light-based astronomy, which is limited by obscuring entities like clouds or cosmic dust, radio telescopes are able to avoid these disruptions. In doing so, they are able to identify invisible gasses and other astronomic bodies that cannot be viewed through optical means.

Signal processing by the SKA generates a wealth of data, which requires large-scale computational resources to make sense of. Data-intensive radio astronomy is already using supercomputing, notes Boas. For example, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Pawsey Centre in Perth, Australia, is installing a Cray XC30 Supercomputer and Sonexion storage system to support several key research areas in partnership with the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescopes.

The enormity of the SKA project is such that it requires the innovation of new technologies, including a supercomputing system that is three times more powerful than any in existence today, according to Boas. The project’s website states that the SKA central computer will have the processing power equivalent to one hundred million PCs.

“The reality is that the storage and high-performance computing technologies required for the SKA Project do not currently exist,” writes Boas. “As such, this initiative serves as a vital benchmark showcasing where the industry needs to move to. The solutions to be used to meet these needs may well end up proving instrumental to guiding the supercomputing sector. The highlight functions that may come as part of this movement include an increased dependence on data streaming models that enable real-time analysis in a newly-realized HPC environment.”

Boas makes the point that the supercomputing industry is part of the innovation engine that helps move humanity forward.

The SKA Project is overseen by the SKA Organization, a 10-country consortium. With a budget of €1.5 billion (US$1.9-billion), the SKA will be built over two sites in Australia and Africa. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2016 and first observations could be made by the end of the decade. When completed, around 2024, the SKA will provide an unprecedented look at the early universe before the first stars and galaxies came into being. With its unprecedented power and scope, scientists anticipate that the project will shed light on issues such as Einstein’s theories about gravity, the evolution of galaxies and stars, and the origins of dark energy, magnetic forces, and black holes. The telescope could even detect signs of extraterrestrial life.

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