​Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder to uncover the history of the universe

The CSIRO's Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder has begun crunching the data to solve fundamental scientific questions previously thought of as unanswerable.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's (CSIRO) AU$188 million Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope has begun processing massive amounts of data at a rate of 5.2 terabytes per second.

According to the Australian government, the ASKAP, based in Geraldton, Western Australia, is one of the world's most powerful radio telescopes, and will help scientists discover how the first black holes and stars were formed, as well as answer other fundamental scientific questions such as what generates giant magnetic fields in space.

ASKAP is comprised of 36 identical 12-metre-wide dish antennas, with 12 antennas currently in operation. 30 antennas have in-built specialised radio cameras, known as phased array feed technology, designed by the CSIRO to look at a large area of sky at once. The remaining six antennas will be fitted with phased array feeds before the year is out.

The telescope data is processed on-site and streamed to the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth. The data is then processed by CSIRO-developed software on the Galaxy supercomputer and recorded to disk at the rate of 956 gigabytes for each 12-hour observation.

In the second half of 2017, more than 350 astronomers from over 120 institutions will start using ASKAP for 10 major survey science projects, the federal government said, and data from ASKAP will then complement surveys carried out with Australia's optical telescopes.

ASKAP is a precursor of the global Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which has been slated to be the largest and most capable radio telescope ever constructed. It has been touted as the world's largest science project, involving 20 countries and covering over 1 million square metres of data collection area.

Scheduled to begin construction in 2018, the SKA is an international project that will consist of thousands of antennas spread across the world, with central cores of operation in South Africa and Western Australia. Its central computer alone will have the processing power of about 100 million PCs.

At 50,000 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument currently in existence and powerful enough to detect very faint radio signals emitted by cosmic sources billions of light years away from Earth -- including those emitted shortly after the Big Bang over 13 billion years ago -- the SKA is expected to help scientists answer fundamental questions about the universe and the laws of nature.

In August, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a joint venture between Curtin University and the University of Western Australia, successfully tested software prototyped for the SKA on the Tianhe-2 supercomputer at the National Super Computing Center in Guangzhou, China.

According to the ICRAR, the execution framework provides the control and monitoring environment to execute millions of tasks, consuming and producing millions of data items on thousands of individual computers -- the scale of processing required for each SKA observation obtained within a six to 12-hour period.

As part of the federal government's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda unveiled in December 2015, AU$294 million was given to host the Western Australia sector of the SKA, with the government saying previously the SKA will deliver significant economic, scientific, and technological benefits to the country.

The CSIRO is currently building a similar phased array feed system for the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, and will also supply a second system to Jodrell Bank Observatory in the United Kingdom.

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