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NBN to Crunch SKA

The data volume flowing from the SKA can’t possibly be stored and kept long-term

The data volume flowing from the SKA can’t possibly be stored and kept long-term. Credit: CSIRO

By Dennis Godfrey

The National Broadband Network will help scientists access the huge amounts of data generated by the Square Kilometre Array.

The speed and ubiquity of the National Broadband Network (NBN) will revolutionise how we connect with each other, with massive benefits to society, including in the major fields of aged care, health, business, education – and science.

One of the most important areas of cooperation between the US$2 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope and the NBN initiative has been the Australian government’s $250 million NBN Regional Backbone Blackspots Program (RBBP), which has delivered 6000 km of competitive fibre backbone across regional Australia.

While the RBBP is connecting towns, cities and rural areas to each other and the wider world – benefiting around 400,000 people – its completion allows telescope arrays to take advantage of the 426 km fibre link between Perth and Geraldton in Western Australia. This connects to an existing link from Geraldton to the remote SKA observatory site in a vast area of outback Western Australia that was identified by the Australian Communications and Media Authority as a “radio quiet zone” that has very low levels of radiofrequency energy because of its sparse population and remote location.

While the NBN looks to the future of Australian communication, AARNet is already providing the high-speed broadband necessary for gazing into the mysteries of the past. This will change the face of astronomy.

The SKA, which will be shared by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, will now be able to use the world’s fastest broadband network – operating at 100 terabytes per second. The radio telescope will be 50 times bigger than the world’s largest, putting Australia at the leading edge of cosmic technology.

The SKA’s national network, provided by AARNet, will connect more than 3000 small receiver dishes linked into the world’s fastest supercomputer, which will process a million-million-million operations a second – the effective equivalent of a single aerial dish 1 km2 in collecting area. It will possess up to 50 times the sensitivity and 10,000 times the survey speed of current radio telescopes.

Enormous amounts of raw radiowave data generated by the thousands of remote collectors will be fed back to the central instrument, “correlating” all this data to provide radio astronomy images from which scientists can derive information on the origins of the universe, space and time.

AARNet is one of the first NBN retail service providers, and with the provision of fibre under the Commonwealth’s RBBP, will provide a greater reach for the academic and research organisation in its futuristic adventure in broadband.

AARNet’s uptake of RBBP fibre will assist the SKA in a variety of ways, such as distributing its massive data sets to universities and research organisations in Australia and into the research and education networks around the world, and enhancing inter-university collaboration via high-definition videoconferencing and cloud computing.

Dr Brian Boyle, CSIRO Director for the SKA and Adjunct Professor of the University of NSW, says the Blackspots Program opened up the potential to place SKA collector stations that could not have realistically been otherwise considered. “The Perth–Geraldton fibre-optic connection has already provided important infrastructure support for the SKA,” he says. “Access to long-haul data networks, such as that deployed under the RBBP, will afford AARNet greater flexibility for the placement of remote array stations.”

Boyle says that the NBN is also important to the SKA because it will drive technologies to roll out high-speed bandwidth that will ensure continued growth over coming years. “With the new links deployed under the RBBP initiative, we will look to AARNet support for a data network capable of speeds in excess of 100 terabytes per second – greater than the total global internet traffic today.” he says.

According to broadband champion Prof Peter Quinn, Director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, the SKA “is 10,000 times more capable of exploring the universe than its predecessors. Even for an astronomer it’s mind blowing.

“The data volume or raw information flowing from the SKA is such that it can’t possibly be stored and kept long-term given the finite construction and operations cost of the project. This means that raw data needs to be kept ‘in motion’ until it can be processed into a more refined and compact form, such as images and catalogues.

“To do this, we need a scalable, cost-effective data highway from the telescopes to the computers where 24/7 operations will crunch the raw data into the science products we need. The NBN will assist in achieving this data movement at the scale and cost needed for the raw data of the SKA.

“The fibre technology and transcontinental nature of the NBN is the ideal vehicle for the SKA, and many other endeavours, to be successfully realised in Australia. I’m convinced that fibre-based network infrastructure like the NBN provides the best possible basis on which to build the connectivity and scalability needed for major projects like the SKA that operate on a trans-continental baseline.

“With fibre in the ground as a low maintenance infrastructure, the network capacity can grow with innovations in the switching and data ‘packaging’ technologies, such as utilising multiple light wavelengths on the one fibre. The availability of fibre across Australia to a research network operated by an experienced organisation like AARNet is a major advantage,” Quinn said.

Dr Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University was recently awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe. Perhaps the SKA, with some help from the NBN in tracking the evolution of the universe back to the very beginnings of space and time, will help to explain this and many other mysteries of the cosmos.

Dennis Godfrey is a Senior Communication Adviser within the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.