Professor Philip Diamond is the director general of SKA Organisation, which is leading the SKA Project to create the world’s largest radio-telescope. For the less astronomically-minded, SKA stands for square kilometre array and an array is a cluster of connected antennas.
At Huawei Connect in Shanghai, he told the audience the amount of data-intensive processing power the project will need and how super computers and artificial intelligence will help to process the vast quantities of data that will be generated.
He said that building large radio telescopes that aim to gather as much information as possible will mean dealing with a lot of data. “The SKA antennas themselves will send a huge volume of data to the massive digital systems and supercomputers, one in each of the two host countries, where the data will be processed to allow astronomers to undertake scientific investigations,” he said.
Diamond explained that this will be a data-intensive process that will require initially around 50 petaflops of dedicated digital signal processing power that will grow to 250 petaflops as the capability increases.
A flop is a floating point operation per second and is used in fields of scientific computation that require a high level of accuracy. In total, Diamond expects SKA to archive 600 petabytes of data per year.
He said there are two key areas of the project; the study of pulsars using radio signals to understand gravity and the study of hydrogen to “uncover the secrets of the cosmic dawn and the birth of stars and galaxies.”
To achieve the necessary level of accuracy and sensitivity and to cover the frequencies, SKA will use many connected antennas, known as arrays which can act together.
The SKA project will have two arrays using different technologies; one in South Africa with 200 large dishes and the other in Australia with 130,000 smaller antennas. “These remote locations allow us to get away from artificially generated interference which would pollute the extremely faint radiations that we wish to detect,” said Diamond.
The international project, driven by the quest for scientific discovery and the exploration of the unknown, is supported by 13 countries, bringing together thousands of scientists and engineers from global institutions. This is despite it still being in the design phase.
Diamond then added that SKA partner the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory has been working with Huawei to apply machine learning techniques to astronomical problems such as pulsar searches and radio galaxy detection using simulated SKA images.
He added that AI’s ability to speed up analysis will be invaluable when SKA is operation to deal with the enormous volumes of data. And to make that 600 petabytes of data accessible, SKA is making an alliance of regional data centres, similar to the CERN tiered computing network. “This will allow scientists from around the globe to explore the data in new ways and hopefully unearth new scientific discoveries.”
Though still in the developmental theoretical stage Diamond believes that the research taking place at SKA will lead to some ground-breaking innovations.
Diamond stated that colleagues at the Shanghai Observatory have recently completed a prototype SKA data centre that will provide insight into how such data can be stored and accessed in the future.
“I can’t really predict what spin-offs will be generated by the SKA. But there is enormous potential for us to have a similar impact [to the development of the world wide web at CERN] in areas like data visualisation AI and machine learning,” he said.
In 2020 the SKA Observatory will launch “SKA will then become an intergovernmental organisation, similar to CERN and ETA and only the second in the world dedicated to astronomy,” said Diamond.
The SKA Project is headquartered at Jodrell Bank Observatory at the University of Manchester. Pre-construction developments began in 2012 with construction due to start in 2025.