The technology used in your PC or PlayStation is also helping drive a revolution in radio astronomy—the replacement of custom-built hardware with flexible software and data solutions.
“Hardware solutions for radio astronomy have been evolving, but computer power has been evolving much faster,” says Matthew Bailes, from the Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing. The Centre has developed software systems that are now used in Australia and overseas.
The rapid advance of computer processing power and network speeds have been a boon for the High Time Resolution Universe Survey, headed by Matthew, which uses CSIRO’s Parkes telescope to scan the sky for fast-occurring, short duration radio signals.
“Ten years ago, it was impossible to get anything more than a few megabytes per second of data reliably into a computer for processing—now we get gigabytes per second,” says Matthew. “We’ve taken 250 terabytes in the last year alone, compared to only ten terabytes over seven years for the previous survey.”
Swinburne’s latest frontier is supercomputers that use graphics processors developed for PCs and games consoles. These graphics chips can handle far more data than normal processors for a fraction of the price of custom-built hardware. And they’ll be needed, since “in terms of information capture, the amount of astronomy done in the next three years will equal all the astronomy done in the previous history of mankind,” Matthew explains.