IBM Looks to the Final Frontier

Updated: The company enters into an agreement with ASTRON, a European astronomy research foundation, to develop high-powered processors for the precursor to the world's largest radio telescope.

IBM is helping a European astronomy research firm look to the stars.

The Armonk, N.Y., company announced Dec. 6 that it is entering into an agreement with ASTRON, the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy, which offers observation facilities for astronomers in the Netherlands.

As its part of the agreement, IBM will begin to develop high-performance, low-power customized chips that will be used in thousands of antennas as part of ASTRONs project to build a radio telescope, which will be called the SKADS/EMBRACE. The telescope will be the precursor to what will eventually become the worlds largest radio telescope, the SKA (Square Kilometre Array).

The ultimate goal of the prototype telescope, and eventually of the SKA radio telescope, is to allow astronomers to peer deep into space and look the phenomena of evolving galaxies and dark matter—matter that does not emit or reflect enough electromagnetic radiation to be detected directly—that may date back more than 13 billion years, according to the joint statement by IBM and ASTRON.

These soon-to-be designed chips will be deployed in pilot antenna tiles and will assist in filtering information from radio signals. The customized chips will use IBMs SiGe (silicon germanium) technology and will combine analog radio frequency circuits, which help reduce noise and power consumption and lower the cost per unit. The chips will have a typical peak frequency of 200GHz and will based on 0.13 micron design rules.

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Due to the scale of the project and the number of antennas that will be used, Jan Blommaart, an IBM consultant working with ASTRON in the Netherlands, said that the SiGe technology is critical in developing the chips.

"What you have is an omnidirectional [radio telescope] that looks at all angles and in order to do that, you have an enormous number of these antennas and the total number of components goes up dramatically," Blommaart said. "In order to build this telescope, you will need a low-cost unit and chips that consume very little power."

In addition, since the antennas are turned to pick up faint signals from the deepest regions of space, the chip must produce as little noise as possible so that astronomers can record true readings. The SiGe technology, Blommaart said, will help in that part of the design as well.

The SKA will eventually have "millions of antennas collecting radio signals, forming the equivalent of a [one-square-kilometer] collecting area, and spread over a huge surface area," the announcement said. The design of the massive radio telescope is expected in 2008, as is the announced decision of whether it will be built in Australia or South Africa, and it is scheduled to go into use in 2020.

IBM and ASTRON first started collaborating on the design in October. IBM will deliver the first chip designs and prototypes in the first half of 2007, and the second set of designs and prototypes will come by the end of 2007, the company said in a statement.

IBM already has a working relationship with ASTRON: Blue Gene, IBMs supercomputer, is being used to gather and analyze information from ASTRONs LOFAR (Low Frequency Array) software telescope network in the Netherlands.

Engineers from ASTRON will work with their IBM counterparts at the companys Burlington, Vt., facility. The financial agreement between the IBM and ASTRON was not disclosed.

Editors Note: This story was updated to include information and comments from IBM consultant Jan Blommaart.

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