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Astron, IBM to Build Radio Telescope Prototype


ASTRON, an astronomy research organization, has announced a new collaborative agreement with IBM focusing on the design, engineering and manufacturing of customized, high performance analogue and mixed signal processing chips. The high performance, low power usage customized chips will be used in thousands of antennas as part of ASTRON's project to build a new prototype radio telescope called SKADS/EMBRACE, which will be the precursor for the world's largest radio astronomy telescope, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope. Financial terms are not being disclosed.

A global community of astronomers is setting out to build the world's largest radio telescope, called the SKA radio telescope. This extremely powerful survey telescope will have millions of antennas collecting radio signals, forming the equivalent of a 1 sq Km collecting area, and spread over a huge surface area -- over 3000 km wide -- about the size of the continental United States. The goal of the SKA radio telescope is to peer deep into space and look at evolving galaxies, dark matter and perhaps even the very origins of the universe – dating back more than 13 billion years.

In order to build this SKA radio telescope, new technologies, functions and huge advancements in technology will be required that need to be prototyped in pilot project form – hence the SKADS/EMBRACE project – the first step in this journey.

The Netherlands, France, Italy and Germany are involved in the design and development of SKADS/EMBRACE antenna tiles and there are additional countries which are or will be involved in the engineering and scientific testing of the SKADS/EMBRACE demonstrator.

"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 Dr. Marco de Vos, ASTRON Research and Development Director.

A team of engineers from both ASTRON and the IBM Technology Collaboration Solutions will work in IBM's Burlington, Vermont, USA facility on engineering, design and manufacturing of the customized processors.

The customized chips will feature very low power consumption, low noise production based on IBM's announced SiGe 8HP technology having an FT (typical peak frequency) of more than 200 GHz, and 0.13 micron design rules. The initial idea for the chip has been agreed upon. It will be a Silicon Germanium (SiGe) technology which combines analog radio frequency (RF) circuits onto the chip – which can produce low noise, low power consumption and result in a lower cost per unit. IBM and ASTRON only just started working on the designs last October 2006. The first chip design and prototypes delivery is targeted for the first half of 2007. The second chip design and prototype delivery is planned for later on in the year.

"Increasingly, more and more companies across industries must collaborate with others in order to achieve the new level of innovation required for success", said Raj Desai, Vice President, Aerospace & Defense, IBM Technology Collaboration Solutions. "With access to our deep R&D capabilities, engineering expertise and intellectual property, we can collaborate with ASTRON to develop the customized processors which have the speed, performance and cooling capabilities that will enable ASTRON to focus on the research results they desire."

The chips will be deployed in pilot antenna tiles and will be used to filter useful information from the radio signals. The SKADS/EMBRACE antenna tiles will be deployed in the North of The Netherlands at the site of the famous Westerbork Radio Synthesis Telescope (WSRT) and in France near Nançay, South of Paris.

IBM has previously collaborated with ASTRON on implementing IBM's Blue Gene supercomputer, currently being used to gather and analyze information from ASTRON's Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) "software telescope" network located in the North of The Netherlands.

Decisions on the final location for the SKA radio astronomy telescope are still to be finalized. Australia and South Africa are the two remaining location options, capable of installing the millions of antennas required for receiving the very weak signals from the universe.

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