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World’s Largest Telescope Comes Face to Face With World’s Second-Fastest Supercomputer

Aug 25, 2016 04:24 AM EDT
SKA antennas at night
Artist impression of all four SKA instruments at night under one sky. In it are visible the SKA dishes with MeerKAT and ASKAP dishes in the background, as well as a station of the low frequency aperture array in the bottom right corner and a station of the mid frequency aperture array in the bottom left corner. The left half of the image represents the antennas to be located in Africa and the right half the ones to be located in Australia.
(Photo : SKA Organisation / Wikimedia Commons)

A prototype of the Square Kilometer Array's (SKA) software system was tested on the world's second most powerful supercomputer.

According to the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), the SKA, a multi-antenna radio telescope that will be built in 2018 in South Africa and Western Australia, will be "the world's largest science project" once operational.

The instrument is said to be 10-times more sensitive and much faster at surveying galaxies that any existing radio telescope. Moreover, data from the telescope will be supported by supercomputing facilities, which is said to be faster than any current supercomputer and "one trillion times" the computing power that landed men on the Moon.

The software system known as the SKA Data Processor or the "brain" of the telescope, which is currently being designed by an international consortium, will process raw observations of stars and galaxies into data that astronomers around the world can analyze. The SKA telescopes are capable of producing enough data that could fill an ordinary laptop hard drive every second, ICRAR representatives said.

According to a news release by ICRAR, analyzing SKA's data would be a complex process, so the tests were run on China's Tianhe-2 supercomputer, which is the second-fastest supercomputer in the world next to Sunway TaihuLight, also from China. The successful deployment was conducted by an international team led by Professor Tao An of the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China and Professor Andreas Wicenec, head of data intensive astronomy at ICRAR.

The prototype software was initially run on 500 computing nodes of the Tianhe-2, and then extended to 1,000 nodes. The goal is to increase the number of computing nodes to 8,500 to handle up to 60 million data items.

According to Wicenec, the science data processor also has an innovative feature that could speed up the processing of data. The framework is "data activated," meaning individual bits of data are connected to software that automatically runs the applications needed to process them.

"The most important part is the co-design and co-optimization of SKA data processing software set and supercomputers such as Tianhe-2, preparing for the faster computers in a few years from now," Yutong Lu, Tianhe-2 director, said in a statement.

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