Australian SKA Pathfinder maps 3 million galaxies at lightning speed

It took just 300 hours to survey the entire southern sky to create a new atlas of the Universe.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder at night

Image: CSIRO

The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) has completed its first survey of the entire southern sky, creating what the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has labelled as a new atlas of the Universe.

The ASKAP mapped approximately 3 million galaxies in just 300 hours. The 13.5 exabytes of raw data generated by ASKAP was processed using hardware and software custom-built by CSIRO.

"The Rapid ASKAP Continuum Survey is like a Google map of the Universe where most of the millions of star-like points on the map are distant galaxies --  about a million of which we've never seen before," CSIRO said in a statement.

The ASKAP, developed and operated by CSIRO, is a new type of radio telescope that makes images of radio signals from the sky to allow astronomers to view the Universe at wavelengths that the human eye cannot see.

It forms part of the $1 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which is slated as the largest and most capable radio telescope ever constructed.

The ASKAP and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope are located at the CSIRO owned and operated Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) on Wajarri Yamaji land in remote Western Australia.

Processing of the data collected by both the MWA and ASKAP telescopes was performed by the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre's real-time supercomputing system dedicated to radio astronomy, Galaxy.

Using ASKAP at the MRO, the survey team observed 83% of the entire sky. With ASKAP's advanced receivers, the team only needed to combine 903 images to form the full map of the sky, significantly less than the tens of thousands of images needed for earlier all-sky radio surveys conducted by major world telescopes.

"For the first time ASKAP has flexed its full muscles, building a map of the Universe in greater detail than ever before, and at record speed," CSIRO astronomer Dr David McConnell said. "We expect to find tens of millions of new galaxies in future surveys."

The Galaxy supercomputer converted the data into 2D radio images, which contained a total of 70 billion pixels. The final 903 images and supporting information amounted to 26 terabytes of data.

CEO Dr Larry Marshall said the ASKAP can generate raw data at a faster rate than Australia's entire internet traffic.

"ASKAP is applying the very latest in science and technology to age-old questions about the mysteries of the Universe and equipping astronomers around the world with new breakthroughs to solve their challenges," he said.

"In a time when we have access to more data than ever before, ASKAP and the supercomputers that support it are delivering unparalleled insights and wielding the tools that will underpin our data-driven future to make life better for everybody."

The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre announced in October it would be receiving a new supercomputer thanks to a AU$48 million contract signed with Hewlett Packard .

The new supercomputer will deliver up to 30 times more compute power -- 50 petaflops -- than the systems it is set to replace, Galaxy and Magnus.

The new system will be delivered in two stages, with phase one, pencilled in for Q3 2021, to provide a 45% increase in raw compute power in one-fifth of the size compared with the Magnus and Galaxy systems.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, CSIRO, alongside the Genomics Health Alliance, announced developing an "Australian-first digital conversation agent" -- a chatbot -- that could support patients in making informed decisions about genomic testing for future health risks.

Dubbed Edna, which stands for electronic DNA, the chatbot has been developed specifically to support genetic counselling for adults being tested to ascertain future risk of preventable or treatable conditions, known as additional findings.


Editorial standards