Since our beginning, we have turned to the night sky in search of answers to universal questions. The vast and utter expanse, teeming with wonder, has always seemed to contain the answers to unlock the many mysteries of our existence, as well as the history and future of the universe.
As we grew, we developed tools to help us look deeper and more clearly into space. Ironically, the further and longer we peered, a simple truth came into focus: we weren’t peering at all. We were receiving. We were catching light waves that were coming from stars millions and millions of miles away and that took years and years to finally reach us. All we were doing was capturing them in the lenses of our telescopes.
In the years following Galileo’s exploration of our solar system with his advanced telescope of the 17th century, we have learned that light waves are not the only waves streaming through the heavens. Gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet light, and infrared spectrum, are all blasted through space in a continuous celestial congestion.
The heavens also emit barely detectable low-frequency radio signals – signals which when processed could produce images from stars and galaxies further away than ever recorded and with greater clarity than NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Up to now, however, because of the radio “noise” surrounding our planet, as well as limited capabilities of our radio receiving and processing power, we have been unable to leverage these signals in meaningful ways.
But that’s all about to change. Tremendous work is underway in the Western Australian Outback with the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope. This unique radio telescope is actually an array of more than 4,000 dipole antennas, in “tiles” of 16 each, and spread across a 3Km area. The complex patchwork of antennas is being developed by the MWA Consortium, a group of 13 institutions from Australia, New Zealand, India and the U.S, and will form part of the much larger Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.
The SKA project is run by the International SKA organisation and will build and then connect radio telescopes installed in Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa, creating the world’s largest ever radio telescope.
MWA’s complex array of antennas will capture low-frequency radio signals from deep space, convert them from analog to digital, and then process them through a cluster of more than 20 IBM iDataPlex systems, into wide-field images of unparalleled clarity.
Delivering to the MWA such advanced technology as the IBM iDataPlex systems, which make up the core of such supercomputers as Germany’s SuperMUC, is just one of the ways in which IBM will be involved internationally with the SKA radio telescope project. When this massive SKA radio telescope is finished at the end of the decade it will look to the skies and provide a clearer view than ever before possible, enabling scientists to look back in time as they look further out into space. They’ll be able to investigate not just stars and galaxies, but how the atoms we are made of were created in the high-energy furnace which was the universe just after the Big Bang.
We’ve come a long way from the days when Galileo used his telescope to make ink drawings of our moon’s surface, for the first time recording accurately its craters and mountain ranges and giving man greater insight into space.
In the months and years to come, thanks to the know-how, ambition and zeal of an international team of scientists and researchers– as well as some heavy computing power – man will once again look to the night sky, receive what the stars are sending, and try to unlock the mysteries of how our universe began. And when we do, we may get more than just radio waves – we may get answers.