ASTRON And IBM Collaborate To Explore Origins Of The Universe
April 2, 2012

ASTRON And IBM Collaborate To Explore Origins Of The Universe

IBM on Sunday, April 1 announced that it has won a $42 million contract to work with the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) to research a new line of super-fast computers that will be needed for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) to perform the most exhaustive search of the origins of the universe seen to date.

IBM scientists will be part of an initial five-year collaboration called DOME, named for the protective cover on telescopes and for the famous Swiss mountain, which will investigate emerging technologies to build large-scale and efficient exascale computers capable of handling the massive amount of raw data that is expected to be collected daily by SKA.

The project, expected to be completed in 2024, could well be one of the biggest scientific and computing feats of all time.

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 SKA radio telescope will be collecting every day,” said Ton Engbersen of IBM Research´s Zurich facility. “This is Big Data Analytics to the extreme. With DOME we will embark on one of the most data-intensive science projects ever planned, which will eventually have much broader applications beyond radio astronomy research.”

IBM had already built a rapport with ASTRON when it developed a supercomputer for its low-frequency array (LOFAR) in 2005. That is seen as an important stepping stone for IBM moving forward with the DOME project. LOFAR uses an IBM Blue Gene/P system.

The DOME project, based in the Netherlands at the ASTRON and IBM Center for Exascale Technology in Drenthe, will proceed regardless of which of the two competing SKA hosts -- Australia and South Africa -- wins the bid to host the telescope. A decision on where SKA will be built should be given some time this year.

The SKA project is backed by an international consortium to build the world´s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. Experts estimate that the processing power required to operate such a telescope will be equal to several millions of today´s fastest computers. Scientists plan to use SKA to explore evolving galaxies, dark matter, and possible data from the Big Bang -- an event that created the universe more than 13 billion years ago.

“To detect [signals from deep space], you really need a good antenna,” Ronald Luitjen, an IBM scientist and data motion architect on the international project, told Dean Takahashi of Venture Beat. “It would be the equivalent of 3 million TV antennae dishes. This will be a unique instrument. Nothing else can do this kind of science.”

The SKA will consist of millions of antennae to collect radio signals, with the collection area itself equivalent to a square kilometer (0.62 sq miles). The surface area will actually span more than 1,800 miles and will be 50 times more sensitive at picking up radio waves than any device ever built. It will be 10,000 times faster than today´s instruments.

After processing, around 300 to 1,500 petabytes of data will need to be stored, compared to 15 petabytes produced by the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN supercomputing facility in Switzerland.

“Large research infrastructures like the SKA require extremely powerful computer systems to process all the data,” said Marco de Vos, managing Director of ASTRON. “The only acceptable way to build and operate these systems is to dramatically reduce their power consumption. DOME gives us unique opportunities to try out new approaches in Green Supercomputing. This will be beneficial for society at large as well.”

The DOME project collaboration is being funded by the Province of Drenthe, the Netherlands and from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation.

A petabytes is equivalent to one quadrillion bytes (or a 1 followed by 15 zeroes). An exabyte is equal to one quintillion bytes (or a 1 followed by 18 zeroes).


Image Caption: Artist's impression of dishes that will make up the SKA radio telescope. Credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions/SKA Program Development Office