China aims to tap the prowess of its supercomputer to help crunch the numbers and analyze the staggering amount of data to be generated by the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio astronomical instrument.

Xinhua said the nation was to set up a regional data center, as the SKA is to be built in Australia and South Africa starting from 2020, an ambitious multi-nation project in the hunt for aliens and other worlds deep in the Milky Way.

The SKA will be the largest, most advanced and sensitive radio telescope ever, which can combine signals received via legions of small antennas spanning more than 3,000 kilometers within an area of about one square kilometer.

A computer-generated rendering of a part of the Square Kilometer Array to be built in Australia. Photo: Handout

The SKA will be able to detect and pick up extremely faint radio waves from deep space with its sensitivity about 50 times higher than any other existing radio instrument ever in use.

Its antennas will be installed in the southern hemisphere with the core stations in Western Australia and South Africa, where the view of the Milky Way is best with minimal radio frequency interference and background noise.

The super telescope project will help astronomers study the evolution of the universe, unravel the secrets of gravity and cosmic magnetic fields as well as  search for extraterrestrial lives, on the strength of its wide field of view, ultra-fast survey speed and super-high resolution of observation.

The SKA will generate astronomical amounts of raw data, said An Tao, head of the SKA group of the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, which is under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

He said the data streams from the SKA would be “far beyond the total internet traffic worldwide” and the transmission, storage, computing, analysis and archiving of the data would determine the outcome of the research.

China’s expertise in big data management and analysis will come in handy in tackling the challenge. The country, a founding member of the project, has designed and constructed the first prototype of the regional data processing center.

The Tianhe-2 supercomputer. Photo: People’s Daily

The workhorse to undertake the strenuous task to process the sensory data in real-time is the Tianhe-2, China’s 33.86-petaflops supercomputer, once the world’s fastest, located in the National Supercomputer Center in Guangzhou. 

The Tianhe-2 supercomputer was used in 2016 to trial dedicated software for big data analysis. The processing of the project will be performed on the China-manufactured Virtex-7 processors, designed by Xilinx, a California-based fabless semiconductor company.

However, there have been accusations that China had pushed for a unified, closed design for data centers that had led other major countries to drop out of the project.

And a US Commerce Department embargo banning the export or re-export of proprietary technologies of US firms, like Intel’s high-end semiconductor integrated circuit and firmware, to China means a drag on the Tianhe-2’s speed to process data.