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IBM award strengthens NZ's chances to co-host multi-billion dollar radio telescope project

A Shared University Research award from IBM will strengthen New Zealand's chances to co-host the Square Kilometer Array, the world's largest radio telescope project.

NBR Staff
Tue, 12 Apr 2011

IBM has given a Shared University Research (SUR) award to Victoria University, strengthening New Zealand's chances of co-hosting the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world's biggest radio telescope initiative that will study the fundamental questions of the Universe.

The award consists of IBM high performance Graphical Processor Unit based computer hardware, management software and implementation services, which will allow Victoria to support the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) project. 

IBM is already supporting AUT Univerity's prototype SKA satellite at Warkworth (recently joined by a second dish donated by Telecom).

The US tech giant has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of hardware to the project in the form of its cell-based Blade Center.

Prof. Sergei Gulyaev, director of AUT's Institute for Radiophysics and Space Research, said the university has also become the first research organisation in the Southern Hemisphere to test IBM’s System-S software (also provided free), which is designed to cope with analysing massive amounts of data in real-time (elsewhere System-S is also being trialled stock data, weather and retail data).

Such a high-powered set-up will be crucial for crunching data from the Warkworth dish - and utterly essential if it becomes part of an array. After going live, the system will have to deal with “exa-scale data” Prof Gulyaev says (referring to an exabyte, or 1 billion gigabytes).

Under the deal, AUT also gets access to IBM engineers in New Zealand, Australia and the US.

“We believe that the contribution will strengthen the New Zealand bid to co-host the SKA project,” said IBM New Zealand MD Jennifer Moxon.

The project, hosted in the Western Australian outback, is a new type of radio telescope observing at low frequencies with extreme sensitivity.  It will look to discover never before seen low frequency phenomena and look back in time to the earliest visible history of the universe.  A telescope with no moving parts but a reliance upon huge amounts of computing power, it will produce real-time wide field images of the radio sky.  It is an international collaboration of many institutions, including Curtin University, MIT, the Smithsonian Institute.  These institutions range across the US, Australia, India and now, New Zealand.

The MWA further strengthens New Zealand's case to co-host the SKA with Australia as it is a SKA pathfinder project.  The SKA project aims to build the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope (the SKA) to study the heavens for answers to the fundamental questions of the universe.

So...what does it do?
Astronomical objects and events such as stars, galaxies and pulsars give off radio waves at varying strengths that radio telescopes on Earth can receive and interpret.  From this information, fundamental questions about the Universe, such as its minimum age and how galaxies and stars are born and die, can be answered.

The SKA is a 1.5 billion euro project with more than 70 institutions in 20 countries participating in its technical design.  It will be hosted in either Australia/New Zealand or South Africa with a decision to be made in 2012.

The MWA project is a first step to co-hosting the SKA, the importance of which is reflected in IBM's award, a part of the SUR scheme which aims to support research in areas of significant interest to IBM and the university.  Managing director of IBM New Zealand Jennifer Moxon said the company invested $6 billion annually in research and development.

"Here in New Zealand we are delighted to be able to leverage our global investment in research on a project that has the potential to deliver benefit not just to our country, but the global scientific community."

Leader of the Radio Astronomy Group at Victoria University Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt said New Zealand researchers and students would have the opportunity to contribute directly to the MWA; "the first time we’ve been involved in an official SKA Precursor. This is a significant step forward in New Zealand’s engagement in both radio astronomy and the SKA project".

Not just astronomy

Chief technologist of IBM New Zealand Dougal Watt said working with the MWA would help the copmany understand challenges in next-gen science instruments such as handling large amounts of information and meeting their processing requirements.

"Insights derived from the use of such advanced data analytics will help us develop smarter solutions to address many of the emerging challenges in society such as efficient water management or agricultural emissions."

NBR Staff
Tue, 12 Apr 2011
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IBM award strengthens NZ's chances to co-host multi-billion dollar radio telescope project