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article imageIBM, ASTRON build exascale computer to study origin of universe

By JohnThomas Didymus     Apr 2, 2012 in Technology
IBM and ASTRON are building a new computer that can process twice as much information as the Internet. The computer is designed to analyze information from radio waves in space and help unravel unanswered questions about the origin of the universe.
Bloomberg reports IBM is partnering with a team of scientists and engineers building the world's largest radio telescope. They are helping the team to develop a new computer that can process twice as much information as the Internet.
According to Bloomberg, the Netherlands Institute of Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) and IBM are collaborating to build an exascale computer that consumes relatively little power and will be able to detect faint radio signals produced by the Big Bang.
The computer is part of a 1,900 square mile array of telescope antennas known as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), designed to collect data that will allow scientists project back 13 billion years to the birth of the universe at the Big Bang. reports the project will involve installing satellite dishes, tripod-like dipole antennas, tiled circular stations that will dot the arid savannas of the southern hemisphere over a 1,900 mile area. The project will bring together 67 scientific teams from 20 countries.
The telescope for which the computer is being designed will be used to investigate the evolution of galaxies, dark matter and probe into the origins of the universe 13 billion years ago.
Bloomberg reports that IBM and ASTRON said in a statement: “The telescope will be used to explore evolving galaxies, dark matter and even the very origins of the universe. Scientists estimate that the processing power required to operate the telescope will be equal to several millions of today’s fastest computers.”
Daily Mail reports the SKA will consist of thousands of dishes scattered over 1,900 miles and will have a total surface area of one square kilometer.
Artist s impression of one of the 60m diameter Dense Aperture Arrays.
Artist's impression of one of the 60m diameter Dense Aperture Arrays.
SKA Project Development Office and Swinburne Astronomy Productions
It will be 50 times more sensitive that the best radio devices currently available and more than 10,000 times faster than similar equipment in use. reports it will generate about an exabyte of data a day, equivalent to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. Data generated by the machine a year is expected to be between 300 and 1500 Petabytes.
Daily Mail reports the machine will be millions of times more powerful and faster than ordinary PCs and will handle 100 times the amount of information generated by a Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which generates about 15 Petabytes.
According to Ton Engbersen of IBM research: "If you take the current global daily Internet traffic and multiply it by two, you are in the range of the data set that the Square Kilometer Array radio telescope will be collecting every day."
Building of the telescope is expected to begin in 2017, Bloomberg reports. It is hoped the work will be completed by 2024. The first five-year phase of the project called DOME, will investigate technologies required to read, store and analyze one exabyte of raw data per day, twice today's entire Internet traffic. ASTRON and IBM will collaborate in the 32 million euro DOME initiative to develop data management facilities for SKA. According to, Ronald Luitjen, IBM's lead researcher on the project in Zurich, Switzerland, said: “The challenge is fundamentally one of scaling, and the only little issue is that we don’t know how to do this. Today’s technology will not scale with density and energy in order to build the SKA.” According to Luijten, the necessary advances in technology to develop the new system will be a quantum leap in data storing techniques, “comparable to going from an optical microscope to an electron microscope."
Artist s impression of the 5km diameter central core of SKA antennas.
Artist's impression of the 5km diameter central core of SKA antennas.
SKA Project Development Office and Swinburne Astronomy Productions
ZDNet reports IBM and ASTRON will be conducting research into "advanced data transport processes, optical interconnect technologies and nanophotonics, along with next-generation storage systems based on phase-change memory technologies and tape systems, to help analyze the deluge of data likely to be generated by the SKA."
The directors in charge of the Square Kilometer Array project are scheduled to meet in Amsterdam on 3 April. They will be discussing the location of the telescope. CNET reports that Australia/New Zealand and South Africa are the top candidates for location of the facility.
According to Michael van Haarlem, interim director general of the SKA project: "It will have a deep impact on the way we perceive our place in the universe and how we understand its history and its future. We know we are going to discover things."
Daily Mail reports Dr. Ian Griffin of the UK Association of Science and Discovery Centers, said: "The SKA project will provide astronomers with a fantastic new tool which may well revolutionize our understanding of the universe. With its huge area the telescope will show incredibly fine detail in galaxies, help test the theory of relativity by studying exciting and mysterious objects like black holes and allow astronomers to learn more about the early history of the universe."
Artist s impression of a 100m diameter low frequency Sparse Aperture Array.
Artist's impression of a 100m diameter low frequency Sparse Aperture Array.
SKA Project Development Office and Swinburne Astronomy Productions
Bloomberg reports that Luitjen, said in an interview: “We have to invent futuristic technology to look into the past. The energy issue is becoming ubiquitous. We need fundamental new technologies to deal with the needs of the future data centers.”
The SKA will also provide scientists with a powerful tool for answering the question whether there is life outside our solar system. According to the project engineers, the SKA's dishes will be able to detect an airport radar on a planet 50 light years away.
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