IBM award strengthens SKA chances

17:00, Apr 24 2011
Murchison Widefield Array
NEXT GENERATION SCIENCE: The Murchison Widefield Array in Western Australia is is one of three official SKA 'precursor projects'.

Victoria University says an award of supercomputing muscle from IBM will strengthen New Zealand and Australia's chance of hosting the world's biggest radio telescope.

IBM has donated high-performance computer hardware, software and services to the university and researchers in Australia. That facility will be used to support the A$30 million (NZ$40m) Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) project – a low-frequency radio telescope that is a "precursor" to the $3 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope the two countries are vying against South Africa to host.

Victoria University radio astronomer Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt said the grant would allow its researchers to contribute to research about the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the universe.

The supercomputer would process data collected by the MWA telescope, forming images every eight seconds. The grant comprised about a quarter of the full supercomputing resource needed to operate the telescope.

The university was seeking to supply the rest through Government funding, its own contributions and those from "other interested institutions in New Zealand", said Dr Johnston-Hollitt, who is also chairwoman of the New Zealand SKA research and development consortium. That would see it become a full partner on the MWA project.

The low-frequency MWA telescope is one of three official SKA "precursor projects" – medium-scale instruments that will be used to explore and prove technology for the SKA. Two precursor projects, including MWA, are being constructed at the Australia-New Zealand SKA site in Western Australia.

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"If New Zealand can join the MWA as a full partner, that will be a significant event in the sense this will be the first time that we've actually joined a telescope that is an SKA precursor.

"We're currently not involved in supplying components or critical subsystems to any of the current radio telescopes around the world so it's a big step forward."

IBM chief technologist Dougal Watt said the award was an important contribution towards research and development for the SKA. "IBM is excited to be working with the MWA project to understand and solve some key challenges these next-generation science instruments will generate, such as handling huge volumes of information and meeting demanding processing requirements."

The SKA telescope will be 50 times more powerful than existing instruments and will be built in the southern hemisphere – either over Australia and New Zealand or in Africa – where the view of the galaxy is best and where there is little radio interference. The decision on where the SKA is built is due to be made next year.

New Zealand is likely to spend more than $30 million if its joint bid succeeds, and build two telescope sites in Southland and Warkworth, each hosting 20 to 30 telescopes.

The Dominion Post