Supercomputer readies scientists for world’s most powerful telescope

Collectively, these dishes would have the power to detect signals from the earliest years of the universe. AAP/West Australian Government

A new University of Western Australia supercomputer that is 10,000 times faster than the average office PC could help scientists to develop the data processing capacity for the world’s largest telescope - which will funnel the same amount of computer data generated by the entire world in a year.

The installation of the Fornax supercomputer, by iVEC, is expected to strengthen a bid by Australia to host the giant radio telescope, which will peer billions of years back into the early life of the universe. The telescope is considered the world’s next mega-science project.

Australia is competing with South Africa to provide the location for the $2 billion “Square Kilometre Array”, which will spread more than 3,000 dishes across thousands of kilometres of territory.

The Australian proposal is to build the dishes on a sparsely populated outback plain in an area of Western Australia, the Murchison shire, which covers several thousand hectares but has a population of only a few hundred people.

In the meantime, the Fornax supercomputer will help drive two precursor radio telescopes, the Murchison Widefield Array − due for completion at the end of this year − and the Australian SKA Pathfinder, a CSIRO project which will be ready at the end of 2013. The SKA Pathfinder will be operated with involvement from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a joint venture between the University of Western Australia and Curtin University.

Despite mutterings in the scientific community that South Africa, along with eight African partner countries, will attract a sympathy vote from the deciding body in Britain, Curtin University’s Professor Peter Hall, who is Deputy Director responsible for Engineering at ICRAR, said that the contest was “very much 50-50 at the moment”.

The organisation handling the decision has not committed to an announcement date, but is thought likely to reveal its decision after it meets in early April.

“We do believe that our central site in Western Australia is a better radio quiet site than the South African site. We also think that over time it’ll be much less subject to population pressures than the African site. The site is as close to pristine as you can get.

"The idea is that this vast, groundbreaking technology will enable us to pick up signals from space that are very weak, signals from the early years of the universe. This would be transformational for astronomy, showing us how things formed.”

Dr Minh Huynh, an associate research professor at the University of Western Australia and deputy international SKA project scientist, said the new telescope would be about 40 to 50 times more sensitive than the world’s most powerful telescope.

“It will allow us to look back in time about 13 billion light years, just when the first stars and galaxies were forming. It will tell us about dark energy and dark matter, and try to detect gravity waves to find out whether Einstein was right about relativity.

"We might even detect signs of other civilisations, if there are any out there.”

A spokesman for ICRAR said the telescope would generate one exabyte of data, or a billion terabytes (or one quintillion bytes), every day while it scanned the sky “with the power to detect airport radars in other solar systems 50 light years away”.