IBM Corp. said yesterday that it will build the special microchips necessary to help the Netherlands' astronomy agency, Astron, build the next units involved in creating the world's largest radio telescope. The project, known as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) will be established on a framework called the Square Kilometer Array Design Study. IBM will provide the design, engineering, and manufacturing of the customized microprocessors to make the system work, the company said in an announcement.

The ultimate purpose of the SKA will be to search for evidence of the remnants of the origin of the universe, the so-called Big Bang. Radiation emanating from this astrophysical singularity is believed by scientists to still be propagating after some 12-15 billion years. The SKA would use millions of antennas, over a very large area, to collect radio signals from space for analysis. While each of the antennas would be small and discrete, collating their results would, in effect, create a virtual radiotelescope with an aperture of a square kilometer. To accomplish this daunting task, the project will need millions of high-performance analog and mixed signal processing chips. And this is where IBM comes in.

The new microchips will feature very low power consumption and low noise production based on a silicon germanium technology that combines analog radio frequency circuits onto the chip, at a lower cost per unit, according to IBM. The chips will be deployed in pilot antenna tiles and will be used to filter useful information from extraterrestrial radio signals.

"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," said IBM Vice President of Aerospace and Defense Raj Desai.

"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 Astron Research and Development Director Marco de Vos.

IBM and Astron began work on the chip designs last October. IBM said it aims to deliver its first prototypes by the first half of next year, with a second iteration of the new chip planned for later in the year.

The involved international parties have yet to make a final decision on where to build the SKA telescope, but Australia and South Africa are the two leading location options, because they offer the largest areas needed for the vast project.

The SKA initiative will push the boundaries of terrestrial-based astronomy to a new frontier, scientists hope. It will be focused exclusively on detecting the very weak signals from across the cosmos that will enable them to examine evolving galaxies, dark matter, and perhaps even the very origins of the universe itself.

[Editor's Note: For more on promising new directions in electronics and astronomy, please see our feature from last month "The New Search for E.T.".]


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