Everybody panic! No, don’t panic. This version of “SkyNet” isn’t slated to be given artificial intelligence anytime soon. Instead, it’ll be taking over some of the grunt work of processing the radio astronomy data deluge to come.
With the advent of bigger and better interferometers, or sets of many telescopes working in tandem, astronomers have a lot more data to explore and calibrate in order to advance the state of the science.
Beautifully engineered and crafted telescopes like the newly minted Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) and the soon-to-be-online Atacama Large Millimeter Array are poised to produce stunning datasets that will allow us to probe the universe more deeply and fully and with better fidelity.
The monster interferometer to come, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), is expected to produce 10 GB per second of processed data. My 500 GB storage device would be filled up in less than a minute!
When I first got into this business only a few years ago, my Very Long Baseline Array data came on magnetic tape. In 2004. Seriously! My Green Bank Telescope data from several days of observations came home on a USB thumb drive. Today, our not-even-full-array PAPER data can bring down my desktop, and even slow to a crawl a more powerful machine at the observatory.
Around my office at the University of Virginia, astronomers are scrambling to build monster desktops or small computer clusters to handle the flow of EVLA data coming from the first observations. A bottleneck has presented itself, and creative solutions are needed in order to deal with it.
Many hold hope that computers themselves will evolve as the data flow grows and that supercomputers at the observatories will be able to handle the initial data collection and processing. However, that doesn’t always help the astronomer sitting at his or her desktop at University X.
So, the folks at Western Australia Department of Commerce, the International Center for Radio Astronomy, and a UK-based computing company, eMedia Track, have created a way for citizen scientists to help. In a fashion similar to the widely popular SETI@Home project, theSkyNet will allow idle home computers to contribute to the massive data-crunching process that will be needed to explore the radio universe in great detail.
Though the SKA is still at least a decade away, you can sign up now to be a part of theSkyNet now. As I mentioned, the new generation of radio telescopes coming online today already need your help. theSkyNet is being used on already processed data from a large hydrogen survey from the Parkes Telescope in order to test its astronomical source finding skills.
Next up, several surveys will be taken with the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, or ASKAP. (Do check out the adorable names of some of their upcoming surveys.)
I, for one, welcome our overlord radio astronomy compu-… No, I mean, it won’t become self-aware and take over the world. Probably.
Image: Artist’s conception of the low frequency antennas for the Square Kilometer Array. Credit: SKA