THE Square Kilometre Array will require the world’s largest computer system to process the massive amount of data for astronomers and researchers.
The world’s biggest telescope is expected to produce more than an exabyte (1 billion gigabytes) of data every day, on par with what is created by the entire Internet daily, presenting an unprecedented computing challenge.
Professor Peter Quinn, director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, a collaboration between UWA and Curtin, says the $2 billion SKA will be 10,000 times more powerful than any other telescope and will therefore need a computer system utilising technology that doesn’t yet exist.
“To solve the SKA problem we have to have the right data movement, data processing and data storage capacities,” he says.
“We are going to have to innovate quite strongly in the mixing of those three things together to make the system the SKA wants to be.”
He says while computer processing power and data storage are improving at the right rate, data transfer technology has a long way to go.
An even bigger problem is to extract knowledge about such things as dark matter, what happened after the big bang and how galaxies evolved, from massive amounts of raw data.
Prof Quinn says they will need to vastly improve computer intelligence and search algorithms to enable it to find ‘needles in haystacks’ and compare celestial objects and look for patterns.
He likens it to searching the entire world’s CCTV footage for one missing child.
“How do you get the science out of the data, the one or two things you want? It’s a really tough problem,” he says.
“It’s a very active area of research but we’re going to have to ramp it up in a very large way.
“I think it’s something that will be interesting to many people and I would expect significant innovation in that area.”
Prof Quinn expects the SKA will drive innovation in query and knowledge creation on large databases, energy efficient computing (as very large computers like the SKA massive energy demands), and improved communications and networking technologies.
He says the SKA will take several hundred people to run and is comparable in personnel scale to the Large Hadron Collider.
Prof Quinn says there has been significant interest from international IT companies including Intel, IBM, Cisco, Cray Computers and many specialised firms.
The design phase is between 2013 and 2016 and contracts will be issued following a competitive tendering process in the next 6–12 months, with construction beginning in 2016.