National Research Council Canada-NRC

National Research Council Canada-NRC

August 12, 2008 14:00 ET

NRC Designs Supercomputer to Boost Reach of U.S. Telescope

PENTICTON, BRITISH COLUMBIA--(Marketwire - Aug. 12, 2008) - Advanced, patented astronomy technology from the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) was tested successfully on August 7, 2008 - a giant step toward completion of the U.S. Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) in New Mexico. The successful test demonstrated the power of a Canadian high-performance supercomputer, called a correlator, which combines signals from many radio-telescope antennas so that they function as a single astronomical instrument.

NRC engineers designed and are building the new correlator at the NRC Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (NRC-DRAO) near Penticton, British Columbia. The design of the correlator incorporates a novel, NRC-patented architecture, called WIDAR, to process a very wide bandwidth signal efficiently for optimum scientific capability.

"The success of the first-fringe test of the WIDAR correlator demonstrates NRC's world-class research excellence," said NRC President Dr. Pierre Coulombe. "Using leading-edge technologies and newly patented techniques, NRC has produced the world's largest and fastest digital correlator. It places NRC as a world leader in this very competitive field and is a testament to the skill and dedication of the NRC staff in Penticton."

The successful test, at the VLA site 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico, used prototype electronics for the new correlator to combine signals from two upgraded VLA antennas, turning them into a single, high-resolution telescope system called an interferometer. The technical term for this achievement is "first fringes."

"This achievement marks the first time that the complete chain of electronics for the EVLA has worked together, and represents a huge milestone in the project," said Fred Lo, Director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). "Our congratulations go to our Canadian colleagues and to the NRAO staff members participating in this project. This is a job well done."

NRC and NRAO have been close collaborators in science and technology development in the field of radio astronomy for many years. Most recently, NRC-DRAO has provided a number of leading-edge instruments for NRAO-led radio telescope projects, such as the EVLA.

"The successful first-fringe test shows that the design of the WIDAR correlator, the heart of the whole system, is sound," said Sean Dougherty, Director of NRC-DRAO and WIDAR Project Manager.

The VLA Expansion Project, initiated in 2001, is scheduled for completion in 2012. The resulting radio-telescope system will be roughly ten times more capable as a scientific instrument, allowing astronomers to observe fainter and more-distant objects. Through the North American Program in Radio Astronomy, Canadian astronomers enjoy access to major U.S. radio astronomy facilities, including EVLA, on an equal footing with U.S. researchers.

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is the Government of Canada's premier organization for research and development. Recognized globally for its research and innovation, NRC is a leader in the development of an innovative, knowledge-based economy for Canada through science and technology.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

BACKGROUNDER

NRC Designs Supercomputer to Advance Astronomy Discoveries

National Research Council of Canada (NRC) engineers have designed a new correlator, a high-performance, special-purpose supercomputer, which combines signals from many radio-telescope antennas so that they function as a single astronomical instrument. The advanced hardware is being built at the NRC Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (NRC-DRAO) near Penticton, British Columbia.

The correlator's design incorporates a novel architecture, called WIDAR, to process efficiently a very wide bandwidth signal for optimum scientific capability. This patented method was invented by engineers Brent Carlson and Dr. Peter Dewdney at NRC-DRAO.

The EVLA project is converting the Very Large Array (VLA), the largest radio telescope array in the world, into a state-of-the-art scientific tool by replacing its original electronics with new, modern equipment. The successful test, at the VLA site 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico, used prototype electronics for the new correlator to combine signals from two upgraded VLA antennas, turning them into a single, high-resolution telescope system called an interferometer. The technical term for this achievement is "first fringes."

Several circuit boards, among the largest ever made (0.2 m2), form the backbone of the correlator. These have challenged state-of-the-art methods of printed circuit board design and fabrication. Each board incorporates 12,000 components, with up to 82 programmable logic chips, 64 custom correlator chips, and a total of 100,000 connections completed by 28,000 wires that total 1.2 km in length. A Canadian company, Breconridge Manufacturing Solutions of Ottawa, was awarded the contract to build these boards.

Each upgraded EVLA antenna produces 100 times more data than an original VLA antenna. Once all the antennas are upgraded, they will pump data into the WIDAR correlator at a rate equal to 48 million simultaneous telephone calls. To process this data, the correlator will make 10 million billion calculations per second, making this one of the fastest special-purpose supercomputers in the world today.

The VLA Expansion Project, initiated in 2001, is scheduled for completion in 2012. The resulting radio-telescope system will be roughly ten times more capable as a scientific instrument, allowing astronomers to observe fainter and more-distant objects. Through the North American Program in Radio Astronomy, Canadian astronomers enjoy access to major U.S. radio astronomy facilities, including EVLA, on an equal footing with U.S. researchers.

NRC's correlator represents a contribution of about $20 million to the project. The VLA Expansion Project is funded by $55 million from the National Science Foundation and $1.75 million from the Mexican government.

www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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