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Image by SPDO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Since seeing the RiAus event on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) with Professor Peter Quinn speaking, I’ve been posting bits and pieces from the night.

I wanted to touch on the huge computing requirements needed to support just the insane amount of data collected by this radio telescope.

To recap: the SKA will be 10,000 times more powerful than any existing radio telescope. Either South Africa or Australia will host the spiral of dish antenna extending over 3,000 kilometres across, the decision will be made next year.

Every day the SKA will collect one exabyte of data. That’s a ten with 17 zeros behind it, a binary bucketload of information.

To process it all, we’ll need the world’s largest supercomputer on site at the SKA core, so the data is processed real-time as it’s collected.

According to the SKA website, they need something about 50 times more powerful than the world’s most powerful supercomputer in 2010, the processing power of a billion PCs.

Optical fibres will be critical for the physical network, as they can transmit large amounts of data at high rates. These fibres are as fine as human hair, and made of silica glass.

Okay, so this is fibre optics rather than optical fibre. Same difference, right? Image by Twistiti

Because the SKA antennas extend for such long distances, up to 5,500 kilometres, or from Western Australia to New Zealand, the length of cable they need would be enough to wrap around the globe – twice!

The national broadband network proposed for Australia would hugely benefit the SKA, providing some of the infrastructure needed for data transmission. We need the NBN! It would make everything so awesome!

Once collected and processed, the data will be available to an international community of astronomers – yet another challenge.

Can it be done? Professor Quinn says yes, though it will require new technologies and creative problem solving. This is no small step for mankind, but we’ll be going much further than the moon.

More information on the SKA technology can be found here.