Data from SKA will need mother of all computers

2013-03-13 00:00

CAPE TOWN — The mother of all supercomputers is being developed to handle the huge amount of data that will be generated daily by the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.

The volume will be a hundred times the data on the entire Internet.

With its 3 000 radio antennae spread across the Northern Cape and parts of Australia, the SKA will collect as much data in a day as would take two million years to play on an iPod, if it were music files, said Dr Jasper Horrell, manager of computer science and innovation for SKA South Africa.

The challenge is to build new computing capacity that is fast and can handle an almost unimaginable amount of data without using much electricity.

South Africa is teaming up with IBM and the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (Astron) in a project called Dome to tackle the challenge. SKA South Africa is responsible for the development of signal interpretation and the advanced algorithms that will enable the raw data to be analysed.

“Previously astronomers sat and did the analysis themselves. That won’t be possible with the SKA because there will be too much data,” said Horrell.

“Advanced algorithms will be used to analyse the data as accurately as possible, after which the astronomers will take over and refine it.”

The equipment will have to function in the hot, dry environment of the Karoo, where the telescope is situated.

“We will in part use cellphone technology because it uses little energy and will keep running costs down,” he said.

Every aspect of the SKA development will focus on energy use to keep the project affordable.

The supercomputer will be built about 20 km from the main SKA site in the Northern Cape.

Horrell explained that the 64 dish antennae of the MeerKAT telescope would be a test case for the SKA.

The new technology developed for the telescope project will have applications far beyond astronomy, leading to an era of “cognitive technology”, said Dome project leader Dr Ton Engbersen.

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