A little more than a decade from now, one of the world’s great arid plains will become a bustling intersection of high-resolution astronomy and high-powered computing. Scrub land in either South Africa or Australia will host the biggest telescope ever, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), designed to listen to the oldest birth pangs of the universe. And the brains of the operation will likely be the world’s most powerful supercomputer.
The next generation of major scientific instruments will require a whole new information architecture, both for processing and data transfer and for storage. So the future of astronomy is closely tied to the future of computing. To interlace these futures even more tightly, IBM today announced a new $43 million (€32 million) center connected to its research base in Zurich, where computer scientists hope to design and build the first low-power exascale computer systems.
The Square Kilometer Array will consist of thousands of radio antennas spread across an area the size of a continent, with a collecting area equivalent to one square kilometer. It will study dark energy, search for black holes, look for complex organic molecules in interstellar space, and look back to the cosmic Dark Ages — the time before the formation of the first stars. Along with a massive virtual field of view, all this work requires lots of computing power.