Radio astronomy uses radio waves to capture images of some of the deepest, most obscure parts of space. Where optical, light-based astronomy is limited based on obstruction such as clouds or cosmic dust, radio telescopes can avoid these disruptions and identify invisible gasses and other astronomic bodies that cannot be seen through optical means. Cosmic entities like our Sun or stars in distant galaxies emit radio waves, making it possible to create images of them without being able to visibly view them through an optical telescope.
The Large Telescope Working Group of the International Union of Radio Science (URSI) has been trying to develop a next-generation radio observatory and, in 1991, came up with the idea of the Square-Kilometer Array (SKA). Since its inception, the SKA project has made considerable progress and now operates as the SKA Organization, a 10-country consortium. This group is approximately 10 years away from completing the construction of the new array that will be co-located in South Africa and Australia.
Looking at the SKA Project’s goals
The SKA Project is clearly aimed at building the largest radio telescope in the world. This will be accomplished through an array of hundreds of thousands of smaller radio telescopes unified into an entity stretching over more than one-square kilometer. With this kind of observational firepower in place, astronomers, cosmologists and other scientists hope to gather data about deep space that will answer some of the major questions currently facing humanity.
At this point, the research enabled by the SKA project could include resolving issues like whether or not Einstein’s theories about gravity are correct, how galaxies evolve, identifying what creates dark energy, which forces generate magnetic forces in space and how the oldest black holes and stars were formed. The SKA Project could even help scientists identify signs of other life forms in the galaxy.
This is all made possible through the large-scale Square-Kilometer Array, a structure that is being designed as an ongoing process. Construction is set to begin in 2018 and will likely continue through 2023. However, answering the major questions of the universe will likely be impossible without subsequent innovation in the supercomputing, analytics and storage, as well as innovations in a number of other areas.
Supercomputing and radio astronomy
Using radio waves to capture cosmic entities is a powerful way to observe galaxies, with the results of signal capturing generally delivered to observers in the form of data. Scientific research centres are already using supercomputing technology to perform data-intensive radio astronomy. One example is the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Pawsey Centre in Perth, Australia. At this facility, which is managed by the scientific-computing joint-venture iVEC, a Cray XC30 Supercomputer and a Cray XC30 Supercomputer and Sonexion storage system are being installed to support a number of fundamental research areas, including research being carried out with the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescopes.
For the SKA Project, gathering radio astronomy information represents a potentially overwhelming challenge for research scientists. In fact, the SKA Project currently estimates that it will take considerable innovation before supercomputing advances to the stage necessary to support the large-scale radio observation effort. At this point, the supercomputing solution necessary to support the SKA Project will need to be approximately 3-times more powerful than the most robust systems in existence in 2013.
The reality is that the storage and high-performance computing technologies required for the SKA Project do not currently exist. As such, this initiative serves as a vital benchmark showcasing where the industry needs to move to. The solutions to be used to meet these needs may well end up proving instrumental to guiding the supercomputing sector. The highlight functions that may come as part of this movement include an increased dependence on data streaming models that enable real-time analysis in a newly-realized HPC environment.
All of this innovation showcases the integral role supercomputing plays in the world. When scientists want to do cutting-edge research that can help move humanity forward and solve key questions, they turn to Cray and its supercomputers, storage and analytics expertise to help them gather and analyze data effectively. As scientific problems escalate and new ways to experiment emerge, the supercomputing industry is there to develop the innovative solutions necessary to support advanced discovery.
Bill Boas, Director, Business Development, SKA