This article can be read in the June edition of the IBM Inspire Beyond Today’s Technology magazine. You can download the magazine here.
Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa, a business unit of the country’s National Research Foundation, is joining the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) and IBM in a four-year collaboration. Objective? To research extremely fast, but low-power exascale computer systems aimed at developing advanced technologies for handling the massive amounts of data that will be produced by the SKA, which is one of the most ambitious science projects ever undertaken.
The SKA is an international effort to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, to help better understand the history of the universe. The project constitutes the ultimate Big Data challenge, and scientists must produce major advances in computing to deal with it. The impact of those advances will be felt far beyond the SKA project – helping to usher in a new era of computing, the era of cognitive systems.
When the SKA is completed, it will collect Big Data from deep space containing information dating back to the Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago. The aperture arrays and dishes of the SKA will produce 10 times the global internet traffic, but the power to process all of this data as it is collected far exceeds the capabilities of the current state-of-the-art technology.
DOME, a public-private partnership
As part of the global effort to solve this unprecedented challenge, ASTRON and IBM launched a public-private partnership called DOME, to develop a fundamental IT roadmap for the SKA. The collaboration includes a users platform where organizations can jointly investigate emerging technologies in high-performance, energy-efficient computing, nanophotonics, and data streaming. Through its SKA South Africa unit, the National Research Foundation is now a user platform partner in DOME. Scientists from all three organizations will collaborate remotely and at the newly established ASTRON & IBM Center for Exascale Technology in Drenthe, the Netherlands.
“This project lays the foundation to help the scientific community solve other data challenges such as climate change, genetic information and personal medical data,” said Simon Ratcliffe, Technical Coordinator, DOME-South Africa.
A new era of computing
“The DOME research has implications far beyond astronomy. These scientific advances will help build the foundation for a new era of computing, providing technologies that learn and reason. These cognitive technologies will help to transform entire industries, including healthcare and finance,” said Dr. Ton Engbersen, DOME project leader, IBM Research. “For example, we are designing a system for storing information that learns from its interactions with the data and parcels it out in real time to the storage medium that’s most appropriate for each bit, which can also be applied to medical images.”
“DOME is not only innovating in the laboratory, but our users platform is setting a new standard in open collaboration,” said Dr. Albert-Jan Boonstra, DOME project leader, ASTRON. “In addition to SKA South Africa, four additional organizations are expected to join in the coming weeks including universities and small and medium-sized businesses located in the Netherlands.”
The initial five-year DOME collaboration is realized with financial support of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation (EL&I) and from the Province of Drenthe.
Introducing the SKA
The Square Kilometre Array project is a global science and engineering project to build the world’s largest radio telescope. The SKA will see back to a time before the first stars lit up. Optical telescopes see the light from stars. Before stars existed there was only gas; a radio telescope with the sensitivity of the SKA can see back in time to the gas that existed before stars were even born.
The SKA will address a wide range of fundamental questions in physics, astrophysics, cosmology and astrobiology. It will be able to investigate previously unexplored parts of the distant Universe.
The SKA will be built in Southern Africa and Australia. There will be 3,000 dish antennas, each about 15 m in diameter as well as two other types of radio wave receptor, known as low- and mid-frequency aperture array antennas. The mid-frequency aperture arrays will be built in South Africa and are envisaged to be a major component of the SKA Phase 2. The antennas will be arranged in five spiral arms and the dishes in Southern Africa will extend to distances of at least 3,000 km from the centre of the core region. Construction of the SKA is expected to begin in 2017 and conclude in 2024.