Feature Story

Big Data In Space and Around The World

by Melissa Jun Rowley

Big Data brings us back in time and into the future with the world's largest radio telescope.

Before the stars lit up the sky, there was nothing but gas and dark energy. Since the beginning of time, the composition of the early universe has been a great mystery. However, thanks to big data and the governments of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, astronomers will be able to see back in time before the first galaxies came into existence. This will all be made possible through the mammoth, global science and engineering project, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope.

With a radio collecting area of one million square meters, the SKA is designed to investigate magnetic fields in space and search for gravitational waves that warp space and time. Beyond initial discoveries, the telescope's creators are pondering the possibility of the instrument detecting life beyond Earth.

"One thing that astronomers expect of a telescope with the capabilities of the SKA is that it will discover things that they hadn't even thought of and couldn't have predicted," said Jo Bowler, SKA Interim Outreach Officer.

However, there are predetermined factors that the SKA creators have thought of with regard to the challenges that will come with handling the vast quantities of data produced by the telescope. The project is going to require high performance supercomputers with processing power equivalent to that of approximately 100 million PCs. While the task is tremendous, Bowler says the breakthroughs and benefits that may surface as a result of running such large-scale supercomputers will be well worth the grind. Because supercomputers are power hungry, reducing power consumption while maintaining processing power is an area that will be addressed, as well as keeping the systems cool.

"Computers and cooling systems, and any other electrical equipment, produce radio frequency interference (RFI) which interferes with the very faint radio signals that the SKA will receive from space," said Bowler. "Shielding all RFI producing equipment is another important challenge for the SKA. We need to ensure that the information that the telescope receives from outer space is not swamped with radio noise produced closer to home."

Beyond radio astronomy, how can world's largest radio telescope advance social and technical areas in the tech industry?

In addition to computation discoveries, the SKA project has potential to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Intended to live for 50 plus years,  the telescope has been designed to expand our knowledge of the universe, as well as push forward high tech development for social impact. Bowler says spin-off applications including low-power supercomputing, rapid facial recognition analysis, and market monitoring may all come to fruition after the SKA is put to use.

But in the meantime, there are five scientific drivers for the SKA. They are:

  • Cradle of life – this project will explore whether there are Earth-like planets around other stars, and whether they host intelligent life, thus helping to answer the eternal question of whether there is life elsewhere in the universe;
  • Probing the Dark Ages – this will explore the first black holes and stars, and help to answer the question of what happened after the big bang and before the first stars and galaxies formed;
  • The origin and evolution of cosmic magnetism - this will explore how magnetism affects the formation of stars and galaxies, and what maintains the present-day magnetic fields of galaxies, stars and planets;
  • Strong field tests of gravity using pulsars and black holes - this will help to test whether Einstein's theory of general relativity is the last word on gravity, for example, whether its predictions for black holes are correct, and whether the cosmos is filled with a gravitational wave background;
  • Galaxy evolution, cosmology, and dark matter - this will explore how galaxies are born and how they evolve, and seek a better understanding of the "dark energy" that fills the majority of the universe.

Phase one of the SKA's full science operations are expected to be completed by 2020, and phase two should be finished by 2024.


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