Victoria University chooses IBM cluster to crunch radio wave data

Victoria University of Wellington picks IBM iDataPlex cluster to process Murchison Widefield Array radio telescope data

Victoria University of Wellington has selected an IBM computing cluster to process radio wave data from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope.

The MWA is a new type of radio telescope which was built as a result of an international collaboration between 13 institutions from Australia, New Zealand, the US and India.

Radio signals will be captured by the telescope’s 4,096 dipole antennas positioned in the radio-quiet environment of the Australian Outback and processed by an IBM iDataPlex dx360 M3 computing cluster that will convert the radio waves into high resolution wide-field images, IBM says in a media statement.

The IBM iDataPlex cluster replaces MWA’s existing custom-made hardware systems and will enable greater flexibility and increased signal processing, according to IBM. The cluster is expected to process approximately 50 terabytes of data per day at full data rate at a speed of 8 gigabytes per second, allowing scientists to study more of the sky faster than ever before, and with greater detail.

"Victoria University was delighted to work with the IBM team to find a solution for the compute challenges of the MWA,” said Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, senior lecturer in Physics, Victoria University of Wellington. “The IBM iDataPlex cluster provides an elegant resource to handle the processing and imaging requirements of the telescope, allowing us to do cutting-edge radio astronomy."

Johnston-Hollitt says the IBM hardware was provided by Victoria University as part of New Zealand's contribution to MWA, which allowed the country to join the project.

The total value of the iDataPlex dx360 installation was $1.4 million but according to Johnston-Hollitt the cost was offset by a shared university grant of an undisclosed value that was awarded to Victoria University by IBM last year.

"We're a full member of MWA and that gives us the same access to the telescope as all the other members," Johnston-Hollitt told Computerworld. "Although we have donated [the cluster] to MWA, technically it's still owned by us."

Johnson-Hollitt says that Victoria University's main use of the telescope is in the field of extra-galactic astrophysics, particularly diffuse radio emissions.

"We're looking at large patches of emissions, such as may be emitted by galaxies or groups of galaxies," she says.

Although the telescope is not physically 'pointed' at particular areas of the sky, Johnson-Hollitt says it can be "steered electronically".

"The antennas, which resemble bow ties, have no moving parts. They are more akin to TV aerials than anything else. However by processing their signals in a certain way it's equivalent to looking in a certain direction."

The ultimate goal of the $51 million MWA telescope is to observe the early universe, when stars and galaxies were first born. By detecting and studying the weak radio signals emitted from when the universe consisted of only a dark void of hydrogen gas – the cosmic "Dark Age" - scientists hope to understand how stars, planets and galaxies were formed. The telescope will also be used by scientists to study the sun’s heliosphere during periods of strong solar activity and time-varying astronomical objects such as pulsars.

The IBM iDataPlex cluster will be housed on-site in the Murchison Radio Observatory (MRO) site around 700 km north of Perth, near the radio telescope antennas. With a 10 Gbps communications link to Perth, it will allow the images to be transferred and stored and made available for research. The MRO site will also be the Australian location for a significant portion of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the world's most powerful radio telescope and is being co-hosted by Australia and South Africa.

The MWA project is led by the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research at Curtin University and is one of three SKA precursor telescopes

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