Supercomputers power radio telescope projects

03/10/2012 - 00:24


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Supercomputers power radio telescope projects
SOFTWARE TELESCOPE: Steven Tingay says most of the complexity and cost is sunk into supercomputing. Photo: Curtin University

AS Western Australia moves a step closer to the construction of its part of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, the supercomputers behind the scenes are set to provide flow-on benefits to commercial and research interests.

Testing has already begun at the Murchison Widefield Array, a precursor to the SKA, which aims to be the first radio telescope to look back into the first billion years of the universe. It will be fully operational in December.

The two array projects rely on highly sophisticated supercomputers, which enable research teams to conduct experiments with greater complexity and speed.

This technology can also find applications in commercial settings hungry for data crunching, such as finance and resources exploration.

Located 800 kilometres north of Perth in the shire of Murchison, the MWA consists of 2,000 fixed antennas that will use an IBM supercomputer to process the images.

“This is where we depart from traditional radio astronomy because we sink the majority of our complexity and cost into the supercomputing rather than a big dish, we call it a software telescope,” Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy director Steven Tingay said.

Most of the budget spent on traditional radio telescopes goes towards the concrete and steel construction of the dish.

However, the rising prices of concrete and steel has turned attention to computers as they become cheaper and more powerful.

IBM Australia consulting systems architect Indulis Bernstein likened the enormity of the SKA project to the moon landing.

“The alloys of the computer hardware and software to build the SKA telescope have not been invented yet,” Mr Bernstein said.

IBM has used similar projects to research new systems.

The ‘Deep Blue’ artificial intelligence computer, which beat chess grand champion Garry Kasparov in 1996, helped develop computing processes that are now used in medicine and finance.

The Pawsey Centre in Technology Park, Bentley, will house another supercomputer made by US-based supercomputing specialists Cray.

It will handle a vast amount of radio astronomy data coming from the Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory and is managed by iVec, a joint venture between CSIRO and WA’s four public universities.

iVec marketing communications manager David Satterthwaite said the real value of supercomputing was in its research capabilities.

“Supercomputing is an up-scaling of what you would do on your desktop ... it allows people to do things with a computer that you cannot do with a desktop,” Mr Satterthwaite said.

“Part of it is just doing calculations quicker but the other part of it is engaging in types of simulations and types of calculations that are simply too big to be performed on smaller systems.

“For example, a desktop might be able to simulate a river flow in terms of two-dimensional transportation of fluid ... while a supercomputer can do four dimensions.”

While this helps in scientific research, it also plays a significant role in the research and development of future computer technologies.

“There are industrial applications for some of them, programs being run on the supercomputer may have sincere applications to oil and gas exploration,” Mr Satterthwaite said.

The technology behind the MWA and SKA antennas has strong roots in WA.

The low-frequency sensors that will be used to map the galaxy were first developed at the University of Western Australia in the late 1980s.

The technology was sold to Poseidon Scientific Instruments, a local firm specialising in low-frequency sonar technology, which was recently bought by global military contractor Raytheon.

The MWA project consists of 13 stakeholders from America, New Zealand, India and Australia and is headed by Curtin University under Mr Tingay’s leadership.


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