Radio telescope project to study universe origins

IBM and the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy have teamed to learn more about the creation of the universe

A high-performance radio telescope that will seek out deep space radio signals to help scientists learn more about the creation of the universe is under development by a Netherlands-based space foundation and IBM.

In a partnership announced this week, the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy (ASTRON) said it will get help from IBM on several facets of the radio telescope design, including the engineering and manufacturing of customized, high-performance analog and mixed-signal processing chips that will eventually be used to capture weak radio signals from deep space.

The chips will be used in thousands of specialized antennas to be located in remote sites to create a large-scale prototype radio telescope, called SKADS/EMBRACE, for ASTRON. Eventually the technology will be used in a proposal for ASTRON's Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which when built could be the world's largest radio telescope, according to the group. The group said the array will be used to learn more about a wide range of celestial objects in deep space, including gamma-ray bursts, planets outside of our solar system, evolving galaxies and dark matter. The SKA project will create a huge radio telescope made up of hundreds of small collection stations that will form a larger picture to aid researchers.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Radio astronomy uses radio telescopes to detect, or "see," radio wave emissions from far-off objects in space. They differ from optical telescopes, which use lenses to literally see objects in deep space. Radio telescopes also differ from optical telescopes because clouds and other atmospheric conditions have no negative effects on their use. By using a large array of many special antennas for the proposed radio telescope projects, researchers will be able to gather the faintest radio signals ever collected from deep space, according to project organizers.

Raj Desai, vice president of aerospace and defense at IBM, said the ASTRON project will also involve IBM in analyzing data from the radio signals that will eventually be collected by the radio telescopes as prototypes are built and tested. IBM will also be involved in other design work.

The radio telescope designs sought by ASTRON differ from current designs, Desai said, because the new chips will allow the collection of much weaker radio signals than those collected today by scientists around the world.

"It's going to tell a better story" than possible now about the conditions in the universe when it was created some 13 billion years ago, Desai said. "It's the next step in research but it's a huge leap in the capabilities of what is being done today."

Scientists will also be able to use the next generation of radio telescopes to find out if new galaxies are forming where we can't see today, he said. "Those signals are an avenue to find out more," he said.

The antenna prototypes are due by next August, Desai said, with production pieces scheduled to be available by the end of 2007.

It will take another five to seven years for the larger-scale radio telescope projects, including the SKA and its prototype, to be built and put into service, he said.

In building the specialized chips that will make up the antennas, IBM is creating high-performance, low-power-usage customized chips. The chips are based on IBM's Silicon Germanium technology, which combines analog radio frequency circuits onto the chip, producing low noise and low power consumption, according to IBM. The chips will have a peak frequency of more than 200 GHz.

Lessons learned from the SKADS/EMBRACE telescope will help in the development of the larger SKA radio telescope, which will use millions of antennas to collect radio signals. SKA's antenna network will be spread over an area the size of the continental U.S. to gather deep space radio signals.

France, Italy and Germany are also involved in the design and development of SKADS/EMBRACE antenna tiles, according to ASTRON. Other nations also will be involved.

"A large project such as SKA also requires a close collaboration with major industrial companies such as IBM, and with their commitment to this project, they will contribute significantly to a successful outcome", said Marco de Vos, ASTRON's research and development director, in a statement.

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