Square Kilometre Array prepares for the ultimate big data challenge

Square Kilometre Array prepares for the ultimate big data challenge

Square Kilometre Array prepares for the ultimate big data challenge

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s most powerful telescope, will be ready from day one to gather an unprecedented volume of data from the sky, even if the supporting technical infrastructure is yet to be built.

“We’ll be ready – the technology is getting there,” Bernie Fanaroff, strategic advisor for the most expensive and sensitive radio astronomy project in the world, told Science|Business.

Construction of the SKA is due to begin in 2018 and finish sometime in the middle of the next decade. Data acquisition will begin in 2020, requiring a level of processing power and data management know-how that outstretches current capabilities.

Astronomers estimate that the project will generate 35,000-DVDs-worth of data every second. This is equivalent to “the whole world wide web every day,” said Fanaroff.

The project is investing in machine learning and artificial intelligence software tools to enable the data analysis. In advance of construction of the vast telescope - which will consist of some 250,000 radio antennas split between sites in Australia and South Africa - SKA already employs more than 400 engineers and technicians in infrastructure, fibre optics and data collection.

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The project is also working with IBM, which recently opened a new R&D centre in Johannesburg, on a new supercomputer. SKA will have two supercomputers to process its data, one based in Cape Town and one in Perth, Australia.

Recently, elements of the software under development were tested on the world’s second fastest supercomputer, the Tianhe-2, located in the National Supercomputer Centre in Guangzhou, China. It is estimated a supercomputer with three times the power of Tianhe-2 will need to be built in the next decade to cope with all the SKA data.

In addition to the analysis, the project requires large off-site data warehouses. These will house storage devices custom-built in South Africa. “There were too many bells and whistles with the stuff commercial providers were offering us. It was far too expensive, so we’ve designed our own servers which are cheaper,” said Fanaroff.  

Fanaroff was formerly director of SKA, retiring at the end of 2015, but remaining as a strategic advisor to the project. He was in Brussels this week to explore how African institutions could gain access to the European Commission’s new Europe-wide science cloud, tentatively scheduled to go live in 2020.

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