IBM will develop and manufacture as many as 100 million chips for a massive radio telescope whose antennas will span an area the size of the continental United States by 2020.

Aaron Ricadela, Contributor

December 6, 2006

3 Min Read

A deal between IBM and a Dutch astronomy institute to develop chips that would help power the world's largest radio telescope will also test how well future IBM processors can perform in extreme conditions, IBM says.

In an agreement disclosed Wednesday, IBM will develop and manufacture as many as 100 million chips for a massive radio telescope whose antennas will span an area the size of the continental United States by 2020. IBM will also produce tens of thousands of chips for an interim telescope scheduled to come online in 2008. The research and development project, being undertaken with the Dutch astronomic research institute Astron, will require IBM to develop chips that operate in near silence, consume 1,000 times less power than a PC's CPU, and cost only a few dollars apiece. IBM hopes to learn about techniques for producing such chips by developing technology for the telescopes, says Jan Blommaart, a consultant at IBM in the Netherlands.

"They will put stringent requirements on our future technologies," says Blommaart. IBM will produce two analog microprocessor designs for the project based on its fifth-generation silicon germanium chip technology. Silicon germanium can provide high performance at low power, and is used in cell phones and other devices. But the material is more expensive than the silicon used in most digital computer chips. IBM wouldn't disclose financial terms of Wednesday's deal, but said both it and Astron would own intellectual property resulting from R&D being undertaken at IBM's Burlington, Vt. facility. IBM is due to deliver initial prototypes by the middle of next year.

The chip technology IBM is developing for Astron will eventually appear in the planned Square Kilometer Array telescope, and a smaller telescope called SKADS/Embrace. The technology is likely too specialized to have broader commercial applications, according to Blommaart. But the telescopes' requirements could advance the state of the art in chip production: they need to produce at most 0.3 decibels of additional noise, consume about 100 milliwatts of power (vs. 100 watts for a typical PC processor), and emit very little radiation, so as not to distort the signals under observation. "It is a highly specialized technology," says Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT Research. But IBM's chip division has a history of using near-term R&D to spark generations of future successes. The company's Power architecture, for example, has appeared in products from minicomputers to cars to Apple Computer's Macintosh. "When they learn something new, it seldom stops," he says.

IBM is also interested in supplying the supercomputing power that would be needed to interpret data from the telescopes, says Blommaart. Astron already uses a version of IBM's massive Blue Gene supercomputer to interpret data collected from a telescope it operates in the Netherlands. Astron gets most of its funding from the Dutch government, and is also funded by the European Union.

The international group of astronomers behind the SKA telescope has a two-part plan is to devise an instrument capable of detecting the faintest electromagnetic signals in the cosmos in order to understand the formation of galaxies and how the universe will evolve, test gravitational theory, and search for Earth-like planets that could aid the hunt for extra-terrestrial life.

The initial SKADS/Embrace radio telescope will use about 25,000 flat-panel antennas that can survey larger portions of the sky more quickly than traditional dish-shaped telescopes, since the panels don't need to be mechanically pointed in the direction of the signal astronomers want to observe. The instrument is scheduled to be deployed at sites in the Netherlands and France.

That telescope is a proof of concept for the massive SKA scope, scheduled for initial operation in 2014, and completion by 2020. It will be located in a remote part of either Australia or South Africa. SKA's antennas, if bunched together, would cover one square kilometer. But to achieve maximum resolution, they'll be strewn across an area the size of the United States, far from human civilization.

IBM and Astron began working on the chips' design in October.

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