Future tech

China building one of the world's fastest astronomical computers to power giant, alien-seeking telescope

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2015, 4:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2015, 5:31pm

The largest radio telescope in history, currently under construction in China, will be hooked up to one of the world's fastest computers for astronomical calculations as it searches for alien life and investigates dark matter.

Data collected by the five-hundred-metre aperture spherical telescope (FAST)'s enormous dish, larger than 30 football fields, would overload an ordinary computer.

The current fastest astronomical supercomputer is Japan's Aterui, which was upgraded last year to enable it to make 1,000 teraflops, or one thousand trillion, calculations per second.

Sky Eye 1, FAST's "super brain", would be even faster.

Ren Jingyang, vice president of China's largest high-performance computer company Sugon, told Xinhua that the Sky Eye 1 supercomputer would have a peak performance of "above" 1,000 teraflops to process the enormous amount of data from the project.

The supercomputer will be hosted at a facility near the telescope with a high-speed data link connecting the two capable of transmitting up to 100 gigabytes of data per second.

While head and shoulders above regular computers, Sky Eye 1 still doesn't come close to China's fastest supercomputer. Its speed is about a thirtieth of that of the Tianhe 2 supercomputer built by the National University of Defence Technology in Guangzhou, the world's most powerful computer since 2013.

State media did not reveal the cost of Sky Eye 1, but it is unlikely to be cheap.

Tianhe 2 cost more than 2.5 billion yuan (US$402 million) with an electricity bill running to around 400,000 yuan (US$64,000) per day.

The construction of the new supercomputer in Guizhou has prompted some criticism over the projects' high cost and remote location.

Guizhou is one of the poorest provinces in China, with nearly a fourth of its population living under the official rural poverty line of 2,300 yuan (US$370) per year.

Critics pointed out that China already has some of the world's fastest computers, but these machines are unused most of the time due to the scarcity of projects requiring them.

Using computers like the Tianhe 2 and others for the FAST project would make more economic sense than building a brand new, incredibly expensive machine in a remote location, they said.

One astronomer in Beijing however pointed out that existing supercomputers are not suited for the needs of the FAST project.

"The cost of data transmission in China has become unreasonably high due to the monopoly of state-owned telecommunication companies," said the researcher, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

"To transfer the data from FAST in Guizhou to Tianhe 2 in Guangzhou may exceed the cost of building a new computer."

He added that Tianhe 2 is not designed for astronomical calculations and may not be able to run mainstream software designed to do such work.

Zhang Peiheng, director of the high performance computer research centre at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Xinhua that the calculation demand from the FAST telescope would exceed 200 teraflops per day.

The Sky Eye 1 was tailor-made to do the job, he said.